Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Note on the Trade Union Vote

There's been some confusion about the Trade Union section vote in Labour's leadership contest quite apart from mendacious attempts by Tories, Blairites and sundry ignoramuses to turn it against Ed Miliband. And that confusion is about the low turn out. I believe that while the turn out was abysmally low and is a cause for concern, it isn't particularly surprising.

Political science makes a distinction between first and second order elections. Here in Britain the one election widely perceived "to matter" is the general election, simply because it determines who runs the government for x number of years. Other elections to council, devolved parliaments/assemblies, the European parliament, and referenda are second order because they are not perceived to matter so much. Hence their turn out is much depressed (which is why it's generally a good thing to run second order elections on the day of the general, if at all possible).

A similar process is at work in our trade unions. Firstly most union members do not join because they want to participate in its decision-making structures. Finding a member who's been to a regular branch meeting is a rarity. They join because of the protections unions offer at work. As a consequence the votes that tend to matter for most members are those relating to industrial action of some kind. This is the unions' 'first order' election.

The second order elections, from the standpoint of everyday workers' relationships to their union do not matter. In this category falls general secretary, officers', executive committee and, of course, Labour leadership elections. So quite how the Socialist Party comes to the absurd conclusion that the low turn out and high spoiled ballot paper rate is "because none of the candidates reflected their urge for radical socialist policies to meet the challenge of the current devastating economic crisis" is beyond me, especially when Roger Bannister, standing in this year's Unison general secretary's election, could only persuade 2.76% of the entire membership to vote for his "radical socialist policies".

The low turn outs for all second order elections reflect the weakness of the labour movement as a whole. Now is not the time to moan about how members should "take an interest". Instead the labour movement has to make more effort to listen and speak to their concerns.


Lawrence Shaw said...

I wonder if any SP comrades actually looked at a trade union voting paper in the Labour leadership election. Each form has a tiny box that must be ticked in which the voter proclaims they are a Labour supporter.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, I myself have accidentally spoilt Labour ballot papers in the past by missing this tiny box once I had sent the form off, and very nearly did AGAIN this time; I had to reopen the envelope as someone thankfully pointed it out to me before I sent it.

To proclaim that the 36,000 spoilt papers represent "most probably a conscious decision by a significant layer to spoil their ballots because none of the candidates reflected their urge for radical socialist policies" is one of the most ridiculous things I have read about these leadership elections across the entire capitalist and socialist media.

I wonder if any SP comrades would like to elaborate on to thinking behind this conclusion. I can guess at only two schools of thought:

1) The 36,000 hated all the candidates, along with the Labour party, and wrote rude things on their papers before they went to the effort of going down the post box to send them back.

2) The 36,000 attempted to vote (presumably all for Diane Abbott as the most left-wing) and then they simply could not tick the box out of honesty for the fact they are not Labour party supporters, then went to the effort of going down the post box to send them back knowing the vote wouldn't be counted anyway.

Either proposition is beyond ridiculous and the idea the spoilt ballot paper count is some kind of indicator of support for radical socialist ideas is disingenuous and fanciful. I wish it were true, but it patently just cannot be.

The awful truth for new-workers-party proponents is that, for the first time in decades, the trade union link to the Labour party has had its first experience of having a serious influence - and most tellingly of all, that influence has pushed the party back towards the left.

Don't forget, Trade union members happily voted for Blair as leader in droves back in 94 and have historically been to the RIGHT of the CLPs. But this time around they managed to reject the anointed Blairite candidate AND heavily deny the idiot Prescott a job as party treasurer.

I'm no believer that Ed Miliband is going to suddenly turn the party to the left.

But when you have a Labour leader elected thanks to the union influence and he talks about introducing a Living Wage, proper rights for Agency Workers and, perhaps most importantly, a promise of levelling-up workers terms and conditions so that foreign workers are not exploited (which was the main factor behind the Lindsey dispute) then surely you have to recognise these moves are to at the very least be given critical support?

Strategist said...

>> "Trade union members... managed to reject the anointed Blairite candidate AND heavily deny the idiot Prescott a job as party treasurer."

On point of fact I think the union vote against Prescott for party treasurer was more of a good old fashioned block vote stitch up. The union section of the electoral college broke something like 99.5 - 0.5 against Prescott.

To be fair to old Prezza, as far as I know, he took his defeat like a man - no doubt in recognition that he will have used the rule book & block vote for all manner of skullduggery over his career.

Next Left said...

The SP statement is the CWI leadership at its dogmatic and self-deluding worst. I suspect many of the more experienced and sober SP members will take much of it with a pinch of salt.

The notion that calls for Miliband to ditch the 'Red Ed' label ' a striking illustration of the explosive social situation developing in Britain now' and constitutes 'a backhanded acknowledgement that a real, left, socialist policy would find a huge echo and electoral success' is breathtakingly idiotic.

Coming only months after the TUSC scored fewer votes than the fascists and the Christians you wonder what world some Trotskyists live in.

On the increasingly ambivalent relationship between unions and their members in the post-war period it is worth checking out the work of Victor Perez-Diaz.

lurker said...

As you well know, union leaders did everything they could to swing their members toward Ed, denying other candidates communication channels, featuring his image on the envelopes, etc, etc, all of which i suppose you find a jolly jape. Ho ho.

I actually have nothing much against Ed's politics -whatever they really are - but like Cruddas felt the priority was to get back to government rather than stand self-righteously on the sidelines while the Tories destroyed people's lives.

Now, it may well be that this means being more to the "right" to appeal to voters. To me this is more important that ideological purity - if you want that, indeed go and form your new party. I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun. Meanwhile the rest of us can be left to try and save people's schools, health services etc and edge toward the kind of state, albeit mighty imperfect, you can only talk about.

Anonymous said...

Do you think maybe that the form was designed deliberately to make the "I agree that..." tickbox missable, so that it would create a mass of spoilt papers from TU members?
This way, the votes of party members would have a bigger percentage influence??

Lawrence Shaw said...

Strategist - I have to admit I didn't realise that was a block vote until after I had posted, so I admit that was wrong. That said, Lord Prescott tore up his union card some time ago in spite of the fact his union put him where he is now, so I think it is fair enough.

Lurker - I really don't think putting Ed Miliband's face on an envelope with a letter urging support and sending a few text messages constitutes the union leaders as doing "everything they could". What they did is called political campaigning. I got a letter from my MP and an email from my MEP urging me to support Dave. What is the big difference?

Anyone who is banging on about some kind of unfair advantage fails to mention that your average union member will also get hundreds of leaflets advertising loans and sofas and satellite TV and take aways through their door every year as well - it doesn't mean they take up every offer that comes through their letterbox, so why would they do what their distant union leaders tell them either? Why is it so unbelievable that union members decided in the privacy of their own homes to vote for a candidate who actually addressed many of their concerns about politics and the direction of the Labour Party?

I note the Tories have suddenly stopped banging on about this (Baroness "electoral fraud allegations" Warsi pulled out of Question Time last night, and her replacement, the lumpen Shapps, sat largely on the fence), so I think it's high time that Labour supporters who didn't support Ed in the election let this go as well.

Phil said...

Well said.

Ben Norman said...

As a member of unite I received the voting paper, but refused to vote because as a member of the SP I could not tick the aforementioned box with any degree of honesty.

I believe it is the case that the dismally low turnout from the affiliated trade union membership was due to the lack of a credible left candidate. It is a matter of debate whether or not the rank and file membership would have been spurned into voting for a revolutionary socialist; however it is reasonable to assume that the inevitable crowing of one of the brothers Milliband, coupled with the amateurish and barely left-wing campaign of Diana Abbot failed to inspire any interest.

Perhaps if John McDonald had stood the turn out may have been marginally higher, although I would have struggled to vote myself.

As for TUSC, lest we forget it took Keir Hardy and Co decades to build the Labour party. TUSC at the very least is a good start on the road to a new party.

Lawrence Shaw said...

Ben, thanks for coming back - that is an interesting insight and I respect your principled position.

Is this a wider Socialist Party position though? It is just that I am certain in the past the SP has openly/critically supported John McDonnell in Labour leadership elections and urged members to vote for him in union affiliate elections given the chance.

Indeed, when McDonnell failed to get on the ballot paper against Brown in 2007, Socialism Today said: "If he had succeeded in getting on the ballot paper it would have led to welcome publicity for a programme against cuts, privatisation and the Iraq war and in favour of free education, a decent minimum wage, civil liberties and trade union rights. It would also have been a chance for workers in Labour-affiliated trade unions to vote in favour of that programme."

I know Ed Miliband is no McDonnell. But in his victory speech he has disowned the Iraq War, made it clear he is "in favour" of civil liberties (anti ID cards and detention without trial for example) and said he wants to introduce a Living Wage to replace the Minimum Wage - all linked to key demands in that paragraph above.

That's why I am surprised at the lack of recognition on the part of the SP, so far at least, that there has been a partial move to the left within the Labour party leadership position and that this has come about directly due to the influence of trade unionists exercising their vote in the Labour Leadership election.

Ben Norman said...

Hi Lawrence,

I believe some comrades chose to exercise their union affiliated vote in support of Abbott while others chose not to.

Regarding the SP position on McDonald, during the general election we did not stand against him, which I would interpret as an acknowledgement that he is the best the Labour Left has. Obviously the SP call for a new worker’s party means there is a fundamental gulf between this and the support he gets from other left groups which hold him up to claim there is life in the labour left yet.

Hypothetically, if McDonald had stood in the contest I imagine we would have commended his stance on the anti-trade union laws, his support for BA workers, his stance on Iraq etc, but would have said that he remains a lone, isolated voice in the parliamentary labour party and that he could be much more effective as a force for bringing sections of the left together in a new formation if he were to leave the Labour party.

Regarding Ed Milliband, his speech was such that people can project onto him what they wish to see. Some are arguing that his statement about not supporting ‘irresponsible strikes’ at least means he’ll support strikes he considers ‘responsible’ which is a start. I consider that clutching at straws. He did apologise for Iraq, but he remains committed to Afghanistan. He did mention some points which will be well received by some trade unionists, but he didn’t mention the anti-trade union laws.

I think it is correct for the SP to say that there has been no real shift to the left. (I would say that though wouldn't I!) Yes, Ed got the votes of individual trade unionists who made up their own minds to vote for him, but I suspect it was largely a 'lesser evilism' approach and a rejection of David.

Here in Portsmouth we remember only too well that Ed Milliband refused to support the Vestas wind turbine workers on the Isle of Wight.

Lawrence Shaw said...

Fair enough Ben, I guess time will tell.

As I write this, Ed has popped his strike-denouncing cherry over the BBC pensions dispute, so I have absolutely no illusions that he is going to be some kind of standard bearer for the union movement as the capitalist press has said.

The deeper question remains, I suppose, whether the bulk of working class and middle class people would support a mass left alternative to Labour and I just can't see that happening in the coming period and if EdM is making noises towards improving terms and conditions for the lowest paid and trying to end certain workplace injustices, then I still think we need to welcome end encourage these moves.

Anonymous said...

I think this tells you all you need about 'red' Ed's support for trade union members rights and opinions:

andy newman said...

"This way, the votes of party members would have a bigger percentage influence??"

No it wouldn't.

party members are 33% of the electoral college, whatever happens to the union vote.

andy newman said...

"Now, it may well be that this means being more to the "right" to appeal to voters"

and yet todan's poll shows that Ed MIliband is much more popular with Lib Dem voters than David Miliband.

Looks like you need to reassess your trinagulation strategy.

andy newman said...

"As for TUSC, lest we forget it took Keir Hardy and Co decades to build the Labour party. "

I think that TUSC is closer to Laurel and Hardy though, isn't it?

andy newman said...

"Here in Portsmouth we remember only too well that Ed Milliband refused to support the Vestas wind turbine workers on the Isle of Wight."

That isn't true

Ed M tried t broker a deal with Vestas to save the jobs.

Bob Crow had meetings with Ed M IIRC and Ed was sympathetic to the strikers, but Vestas was not interested in a rescue, they had decided to close it wahtever the government said.