After Labour's leadership election I: The role of trade unions

The trade unions in the UK will have an important part to play in revitalising the Labour party and opposing the Coalition's spending cuts. But their role in Labour's leadership election, and the attack on this by the Coalition, underlines the need for changes to the ways in which unions members are recognised and engaged in political action.

The trade unions will have an important part to play in revitalising the Labour party as a grass-roots movement and opposing the Coalition's spending cuts. But their role in Labour's leadership election, and the attack on this by the Coalition, underlines the need for changes to the ways in which unions members are recognised and engaged in political action.

One good outcome of the Labour party leadership election was the close margin of victory between Ed and David Miliband.  This is because it enables David Miliband to emerge with dignity from the contest, after losing it, and to retain major political influence. Labour can only succeed in retrieving its position if all elements of its internal coalition can now work together in a constructive way, different from the destructive relationships and continuous battles between the Blair and Brown factions in the previous government. 


Ed understood the need to move leftwards on certain
issues to appeal to the electoral colleges.

What lessons are to be drawn from this leadership campaign? Of particular significance is the fact that that while David secured a majority among MPs, MEPs, and individual Labour party members, Ed secured his victory through his majority of votes among affiliated trade union members. Here lies a source of danger, not only for Ed's leadership, but also necessarily for Labour itself. Plainly Cameron and the Tories are going to say that Ed's position lacks democratic legitimacy, and will seek to discredit him through his debt to the trade unions.

It is instructive to see how this election was lost and won.  It seemed that David in his campaign was  trying to address an audience wider than that of the Labour party. He seemed visibly to be already imagining himself into the role of Opposition leader whose main tasks would be to win the confidence of the larger electorate. At the same time he also seemed to have in mind the task of maintaining a viable coalition of the various forces within the Labour party, not least his fellow-candidates. (In this respect his support for Diane Abbott's candidacy, and his acknowledgement of Ed Balls' effectiveness in attacking Coalition economic policy, may have been more than tactical.) 

But this was not an 'open primary', in which any citizen could vote if he or she felt so inclined, but an election confined to three membership constituencies within the Labour party. Ed seems to have understood this much better than his brother, and this explains why he decided to move leftwards on certain issues, to increase his appeal to party members, while David adhered firmly to the positions which the government had defended in the recent general election, not least on the financial deficit. This was presumably to present himself as both consistent and politically responsible, though it may also have been a condition of the Blairite support he was  given. David remained too close to the old order.

The role of the trade unions affiliated to the Labour party was crucial to the election outcome, but it also has a deeper significance for the future. The outcome of this leadership contest will bring further efforts to discredit and diminish the role of trade unions in British political life. These will be led by the Coalition, but will attract wider support.

There needs to be more than a defensive reaction to these attacks, but instead a thoughtful and dialectical response to them. The fact is that in the next period of political struggle, the trade unions and their membership need to have a greater, and not a smaller political role. What is needed is to think how this is to be brought about. There is a danger in this situation that the Coalition will further limit trade union rights and powers. For example by legislating to limit the trade unions' support for political causes, through its funding of political parties, thus permanently weakening the voice and influence of working people in British politics.

We need to recognise on the negative side that the unions' involvement in the leadership campaign was not as one would have wished it to be. The reported meeting of the leaders of the five biggest unions in the Commonwealth Club, and their decision to recommend their members to vote in four cases for Ed Miliband, and in one case for Ed Balls, looks like a continuation of the traditional exercise by union executives of the former power of the 'Block Vote', to the reduced degree that modern  requirements for members to have individual votes now makes possible. 

It seems that the union leaders felt that they had the right and power to dispose of their members' votes, when their primary role should have been to encourage their members to actively participate and exercise their own choices in the leadership debate. The GMB putting, in effect,  'vote Ed Miliband' on the envelopes which contained their members' ballot papers made the implicit assumption of  'guided democracy' rather clear.

Thus the union memberships were seen throughout as a largely passive force in this campaign, far less intensely engaged with or directly appealed to than the other membership constituencies. This was above all David Miliband's error. (Only 9% of eligible union members actually voted). He should have seen that given the support of most union leaders for his rival, he needed to appeal directly to union members, over their leaders' heads. He had to demonstrate his understanding of the differences between different unions' memberships (differences of gender, occupation, skill and responsibility), but above all recognise how threatened all union members now are by the Coalition's economic and social programme. 

Trade union voters probably assessed the candidates' positions on this central issue by their broader attitude to the deficit, since no-one seemed to be speaking directly to their situation. David being more hawkish on the deficit therefore won less support from them. But not only was this a rather 'old Labourist'  way of conducting this election, it also failed  to recognise the critical role that trade unions  now need to have in resisting the Coalition's programme and in retrieving Labour's majority. The unions' crucial contribution to Labour is usually seen as financial one, it ought to be much broader than this.

The unions were proving crucial to the outcome of the leadership election at the same time as the TUC was debating the Coalition's cuts programme. The TUC's response was the familiar mixture of sensible argument (by Brendan Barber, for example), sabre-rattling, and wary anxiety about the risks of actually resisting the forthcoming cuts in services and jobs with strike action. (See also the Governor of the Bank of England's speech to the Congress analysed by Tony Curzon Price.) But here were few signs of the new kinds of response that are going to be necessary for the public realm to be effectively defended from the Coalition.

The trade unions are central elements of the 'Big Society' that David Cameron continues to proclaim as his progressive alternative to Thatcher's view that 'There is no such thing as society'.  This may be obvious, but the case has to be made persuasively. This requires some updating and rethinking  of  what trade unions are, and what they and their members do. For example, trade unions will be effective in resisting cuts and closures in public services only if they can find common cause with the users of those services. It needs to be recognised that workers and consumers are usually the same people, in different roles, and different places, not different categories of beings.

There are many impressive precedents to draw on in anticipating the coming struggles. For example, campaigns to save hospitals from closure, such as that which took place in Kidderminster, where a de facto alliance of health service employees and hospital users not only resisted the hospital closure, but even brought a by-election victory by an independent candidate (a GP) against a Tory incumbent. Or think of the mobilisations by teachers and parents against proposals to remove schools from local authority jurisdiction, which have sometimes succeeded, in face of heavy pressure and financial sanctions from governments (unfortunately New Labour's).  

A democratic response to the ideological trail-blazing schemes like that of Suffolk County Council to out-source and privatise nearly all of its services, would  be to demand ballots among service-users to determine whether such privatisation should go ahead. Do the users of country parks or public libraries in Suffolk (of whom I am one) actually want their services in any different hands than that of their elected County Council? I think not. The role of trade unions in such struggles should be crucial, not so much  in punitively shutting down the services by withdrawal of labour (except as a last resort), but rather by intensive efforts to mobilise service-users in joint struggles to defend provision  which belongs, in different ways, to both users and employees.

It needs to be recognised that most employees, especially in the public sector, do not see themselves, or want to see themselves, merely as 'wage slaves', turning up to work only for the money, but instead have many varied kinds of commitment to what they do, as central to their sense of worth. Often this commitment comes from direct contact with service-users or clients, in ways which are not dependent on education or professional expertise. Dinner-ladies, nursing assistants, and hospital porters, show as much and sometimes more care for their children or patients than those in higher positions in their institutions.

Even where there is much less direct contact with clients, in the interstices of organisations, one knows that staff in accounts, or human resources, or in caretaking, usually desire that their work is done properly, and that it gives satisfaction to those affected by it. Receptionists in clinics and general practices may have nearly as important a role as doctors, in determining the quality of a service. 

Even pressures over recent decades to create 'internal markets' in public institutions have sometimes had positive consequences. Requiring a department or sub -unit to be more responsible for its performance, to 'justify its income' in some accountable terms, has led to many employees becoming more actively committed and involved than before, since their collective survival and well-being depends on this. A co-operative spirit can develop in these situations, although the presence of a trade union as a  background force, capable of intervening when necessary to protect individuals against abusive treatment, and to uphold collective employee interests, is essential. 

Broadly one might say that the greater choice and autonomy that has come to be expected in modern societies, through greater access to education and information, greater economic security, and citizens' movements of various kinds (from the Consumers' Association to many  kind of  service-user and self-help groups) has not impinged on the self-understanding and practice of trade unions as much as it should have done.

Perhaps critical was the decision  of trade unions in the 1970s to reject proposals for a greater measure of 'co-determination', that is the statutory involvement of workers in the governance structures of companies. Faced with the recommendations of the Bullock Report in 1975, which gave an official form to demands that had been nurtured for example in the Institute for Workers' Control, the trade unions said 'no thanks', preferring their accustomed role as antagonists of capital to any possible complicity in its decisions. 

The economic success of, for example, the John Lewis Partnership model for both customers and employees suggests this was not a prescient decision. The 1970s was the highest point of social democracy's demands, with 'wage earner funds' and co-determination (imported respectively from Sweden and West Germany) among them. These demands either being neglected or rejected, soon after came the collapse of the 'welfare settlement', the 'winter of discontent', and Thatcherism.

Radical conservative programmes like the Coalition's forthcoming attack on the public sector, and growing emergencies such as that arising from climate change, provide opportunities as well as challenges for democratic progressives and socialists. In Labour's leadership campaign, many participants (some, like Jon Cruddas, more convincing than others) have called for the renewal and revitalisation of the Labour party as a grass-roots movement.

This cannot happen without the significant involvement of trade unionists, and this will not take place without significant changes in the ways in which union members are recognised and engaged in political action. The role of the unions in Labour's leadership election, and the attack on this which is about to descend, should be a reminder of how much needs to be done  in this sphere.

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part II, Social Democracy and its compromises, will be published tomorrow.

About the author

Michael Rustin is Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, and a founding editor of Soundings.