A year ago, union members’ votes installed Ed Miliband as Labour leader, against the wishes of the Shadow Cabinet and the majority of Labour MPs. He told Labour Party conference that he would move on from “New Labour”, and that the invasion of Iraq had been wrong. The conference promised a thorough review of Labour’s undemocratic structures.
All good. According to latest figures, 70,000 new members have now joined Labour since May 2010. It’s a small figure by historical standards, but big compared to the shrivelled membership roll (below 140,000) before May 2010.
The big unions had shown slightly more sign of asserting themselves at Labour’s 2009 conference, and there have been some murmurs and stirrings inside those unions over the last year. The Labour-affiliated unions (grouped together in TULO) produced a submission for the review which disappointed Labour left-wingers but included some positive proposals for democratic reform.
Yet, as Labour approaches its 2011 conference, opening in Liverpool on 25 September, the old New Labour machine is still asserting firm control.
At the Durham Miners’ Gala in July, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said he wanted a “more democratic Labour party. With thousands more members, with... an annual conference featuring real debates”.
McCluskey and the other union leaders are not making good on such promises, and the more energetic among the 70,000 new members are not being organised into a rank-and-file movement demanding democratic rights.
Ed Miliband has attacked the 30 June strike against pension cuts, responded to the riots by criticising the Tories for allocating too little money to the police, and endorsed eviction of the Dale Farm travellers only the day before the UN criticised the planned eviction as a breach of human rights. And the major pressure on him inside the Labour Party is to be even more right-wing, even more “New Labour”-ish, even more an un-Red Ed.
The review of Labour Party structure has been botched and manipulated. The National Executive is planning to spring a “package” on delegates without notice at the start of conference, while at the same time democratic rule-change proposals submitted by Constituency Labour Parties in 2010 have been ruled off the agenda on artificial grounds.
On Sunday 4 September the Observer ran an article, obviously “fed” to it by Miliband’s office, on what it bills as a move by Miliband to “rewrite Labour’s founding principles” by way of bouncing an amendment to clause I of the Party constitution through the conference without any chance for prior consideration or debate.
The “Hain report” in July (the Labour leaders’ response to the review of structure) said that “A new Clause I should set out our desire to build a party fit for the future; a genuine movement where the connection between the party and the public is strong”.
The best that can be said here is that if Miliband’s office is feeding this waffle to the press as the main focus, then maybe it will back down on the worse proposals which could be in the “package” put to conference.
As the Observer reported: “One idea mooted would see [the unions’] voting power at party conference reduced to below 50% and a reduction in their sway over leadership elections. On Sunday [4th] a source close to Miliband said no decisions had yet been taken and that unions would realise Miliband was the first Labour leader in a long time to believe passionately in maintaining the union link”.
Union delegates should strive to ensure that this means that the unions (which now supply 86% of Labour’s income) will at least stand firm against anti-democratic changes being bounced through conference with no notice.
In July the union reps on the National Executive did resist pressure from Miliband to give Labour’s general secretary job to Chris Lennie (incumbent deputy GS, and a notorious Blairite hatchet-man), and instead voted in GMB political officer Iain McNicol.
To fight the coalition government’s cuts we need a working-class political alternative that will lead a clear political battle against cuts now, and commit to reversing those cuts when the coalition is toppled. Ed Miliband’s Labour is not offering anything like that. The unions and rank-and-file Labour activists need to organise.
• More: bit.ly/labpool