Saturday, 4 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the Trade Unions

There were howls of dismay on my Twitter feed last night. And it wasn't all because Heather Watson lost a close fought match with Serena Williams. It had something to do with this: that the GMB and Unite look all set to endorse Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy for the Labour Party leadership. And the people doing the moaning? Mostly Liz Kendall supporters.

It's a strange turn about, considering a number of PLP Blairites view Unite as some sort of latter day manifestation of the Militant Tendency. Why are they up in arms about their designated enemy's leadership preference? On the one hand, there is the complaint that neither union have undertaken a formal consultation with their members about who they should endorse. There are two things worthwhile noting at this point. The first is unions are representative organs of the democratic will of their members. Whether you think they should have had a proper, organised debate in the union about endorsement or not - and I think doing so could well have helped boosted the pitiful numbers so far signed up as affiliated supporters - it is well within the rules for this decision to be made by elected executive members. If the Kendallites don't like it, they might wish to spearhead direct democratisation campaigns in the unions. Secondly, I doubt there will be any such hand wringing when, right on cue, USDAW and Community deliver their support for Liz Kendall by an identical method. After all, everyone remembers David Miliband magnanimously insisting those two unions ballot their members prior to granting him their endorsement.

The other problem for Liz Kendall supporters is that they're deeply worried. For all the prattling about Ed Miliband's character in the lead up to the election, it remained the case that the more people saw of him in the short campaign, the more they liked him. Not enough to win, of course, but it was a thing. Unfortunately for Liz, she is suffering the opposite problem. Her candidacy has rapidly gone from being a contender to looking increasingly like her bandwagon going to roll in at fourth place. Needless to say that would be a disaster for whom Liz's liberalism is synonymous with "modernisation". Should this scenario come to pass, there could be a few resignations and decampings to a Tim Farron-led (cos he's going to win, isn't he?) Liberal Democrats.

Let's come back to this main point of this piece. In truth the GMB and Unite are between a rock and a hard place. I suspect very strongly that the respective general secretaries would like to nominate someone other than Jezza, but it's politically impossible for them to come out publicly and so so. Despite very strongly disagreeing with the GMB's Paul Kenny's decision to accept a knighthood, he has been an excellent general secretary and served his union well. The GMB are growing off the back of well-organised industrial disputes, targeted anti-austerity campaigning, sustained recruitment, and a building up of the union's soft power within the Labour Party. For Paul and the exec to come out for the three leadership candidates who, at best, have an equivocal attitude to more cuts would cut against the work the union has been doing. Unite's Len McCluskey on the other hand has made a name for himself denouncing austerity and threatening to call plagues down upon the party unless it listens to his "advice". However, an uncharacteristic period of quiet on his part has settled over the airwaves since Jez made it onto the ballot paper. Even the dogs in the street know he would like to see Andy Burnham as leader, despite his stark position takings these last few years.

In addition to being politically impossible to support anyone but Jez, there's the small matter of trade union activists themselves. When the anonymous briefer in the Telegraph piece says "He represents the kind of Labour values the unions want to support ... Are we backing someone who could not possibly win? Yes, we are. But there is a feeling we need to nail our colours to the mast ... He represents anti-austerity, investment in sustainable growth, supporting tackling poverty. That is the way to get the deficit down while improving living standards", the unions are giving voice to some of its most active supporters. And I happen to agree. Remember, Labour didn't lose the election because it was "too left", as some cynically and self-servingly maintain, it lost because of the perception of lack of economic competence - which is hard to tie to the too left charge when the "left" policies consistently polled well - and because the Tories scared the bejesus out of enough people. Labour needs to formulate an alternative that, to mangle the Blairist mantra, combines economic efficiency with a heartfelt, cast-iron commitment to social justice. What better way to ensure that happens by making sure anti-austerity politics pulls in a greater number of votes than the candidate who epitomises business-as-usual?


jim mclean said...

Meanwhile in the USA the punters look to Sanders while the Union Bosses stick by Clinton.

Phil said...

Ugh, I detest American politics.