Labour infighting shouldn’t be news to many people by this point. More often than not it takes the form of highly publicised internet drama, but in the past few weeks we’ve seen infighting of a form far more existential to the Labour Party – an emerging rift between the party and its biggest donor, Unite the Union.
In a widely publicised interview, general secretary Len McCluskey announced his intention to cut the amount of funding the union gives to the party by around 10%, citing the recent pay-out the party gave to the Panorama whistleblowers, and the fact “Keir and his inner circle just aren’t listening”. The Unite executive, and their cheerleaders on the Corbynite left of the party, seem to view this move as the ace up the sleeve of the labour movement; but in reality, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
The first obvious problem with this is how it looks in the media. Labour being “in the pocket of union barons” who can hold the party to ransom is a trope well-used by anyone seeking to criticise Labour, which, relatively recently, Boris Johnson trudged out during the debate on the reopening of schools.
By blatantly attempting to cajole the Labour leadership towards his own policy preferences, under pain of financial penalty no less, ‘Red Len’ isn’t making the unions seem like hard headed fighters for the rights of workers, but instead is fulfilling every media stereotype about union officials.
It doesn’t help that McCluskey was elected the first time nearly a decade ago, and never on a turnout of more than 16% or so. There are technically dictatorships with more internal democratic legitimacy than this.
McCluskey protests that the Labour leadership aren’t listening to him and the union. This poses the question: on what?
There hasn’t been any public or obvious policy dispute between Labour and Unite lately, so this suggests that behind the scenes, Unite have been trying to get something out of the Labour leadership, and they have been rebuffed. Whatever it may be, if the Unite executive have been proposing significant policy changes, in the middle of an all-consuming pandemic, and are surprised that they are rejected, then their political strategy is highly questionable.
It makes perfect sense that right now the party leadership are focusing on pandemic response policy, especially with some years to go until the next election. Furthermore, based on Starmer’s leadership pledges, to which he has recently reasserted his commitment, he remains one of the party’s most left wing leaders yet, excluding Corbyn. The Unite executive should assume good faith on Starmer’s part until conclusively proven otherwise, rather than assume that he intends to renege on radical promises and set a tone of distrust and hostility so early into the tenure of the new leadership.
The actual amount of money which has been deducted from the party’s coffers by Unite’s decision remains unclear as of yet, but if it is significant it will cause more problems than it solves. If Labour ends up strapped for cash and its biggest donor is withholding funds, then the party will have no choice but to lean more heavily on private donors. This presents a genuine threat of policy dilution for the benefit of private donors, and is antithetical to the aims of the party and the furtherance of workers rights, to which McCluskey claims he is so devoted.
There is one other key practical dilemma this decision poses; what does Unite, and the trade union movement generally, actually want to achieve?
Without the unions, and donations from them, Labour would lose part of its soul, its raison d’etre and a crucial element of the policymaking process, but it could theoretically still survive and form another government. Without the party on the other hand, unions could achieve little permanent change. Many on the left of the labour movement like to wax lyrical about how the Labour party is the political wing of the trade union movement, but in practice this is hardly true.
British trade unions are diminished in size and power, their industrial and political influence is nothing like what it was up until the 1980s. The party does not only seek to represent them, but also the majority of the working population, who are not union members. Without the party, trade unions like Unite may still have a bit of fruitful industrial action here and there, but are hardly going to revolutionise the British economy in their current state. The next opportunity for the British labour movement to genuinely restructure the economy in the service of workers and achieve meaningful, long term change is at the next general election, by securing a Labour government, which the unions can work with. The actions of McCluskey and his ilk do nothing to further this goal.
The Labour Party and the trade unions need each other. The ideological posturing and tactical illiteracy of the Unite leadership has been damaging to this relationship, especially now that McCluskey has decided to treat the recently expelled Corbyn like some kind of martyr.
However, unless Len intends to start scattering donations into the wind by giving to the likes of the Communist Party of Britain, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition or the Socialist Worker Party, the relationship between Labour and the unions will hopefully persist, for all their sakes.