Over the summer Ed Miliband announced drastic reinvention of his party’s relationship with the trade unions. He wants affiliation to the party on the basis of individual choice, rather than a collective affiliation in which the union member has no say.
What has led Miliband to make these changes? For a long time, the Conservative Party has criticised the Unions’ power within the Labour Party, this is one possible reason. Or perhaps these reforms are driven by the Falkirk controversy, where Ed Miliband accused Unite (Britain’s largest union) of tampering with the candidate selection procedures for the Falkirk By-election. Dave Prentis (Unison’s General Secretary) believes reforms are a “knee-jerk” reaction to Falkirk and describes the changes as “off the wall”.
Ed Miliband admits that these changes to the link with the Unions are a “risk” and a “massive challenge”. In his speech in Bournemouth he described how he was “proud of the 3 million working men and women affiliated with his party, but they’re affiliated in name only” and that “We can be a Labour party not of 200,000 people but of 500,000 people and many, many more.” Many Union leaders insist there is a collective link between the party and the unions, however a recent YouGov survey pointed out that of 2,500 members of 14 unions affiliated to the party only 45% would vote Labour if there were an election tomorrow, which suggests that over 1 million of the 3 million Union members do not support Labour at all.
Len McCluskey (Unites’ general secretary) speculated that the reform could see the number of Unite members affiliated to the party fall from 1 million to below 100,000, representing an annual cut in funding to the party of £2.5m. Last week, the 600,000 strong GMB Union announced it would slash party funding from £1.2m to £150,000 in the wake of the controversial “opt-out” affiliation plans. These reactions demonstrate that the unions are not pleased with the reform.
The action taken by Miliband separates the unions from Labour even more. Without the unions there would never have been the 1944 Education act or the minimum wage. Unions were the first to expose the scandal of tax avoidance and zero hour contracts. The changes to the relationship could weaken the Unions as it reduces their collective impact on the Labour Party’s policies.
Many believe that Ed Miliband will not be able to hold onto, let alone increase the membership of his party after these measures. Party membership however generally has been on the decline, an outcome of the political participation crisis, the decline in party membership has led to controversial stories such as Conservative party funding where elites and multi-nationals are swooping in to vie political leverage to fill the gap.
The feeling amongst many when it comes changing the Union link is “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”