Sunday 7 November 2021

CWU Conference Pulls Labour Funding

Pretty sure I've told this story before. Upon becoming the secretary of Stoke Central Labour Party in 2011, I visited Geoff Bagnall, the then general secretary of Unity the union. For those unaware, Unity was the 00s rebrand of CATU, the Ceramics and Allied Trade Union appropriately headquartered in The Potteries. With Geoff and his successor, Harry Hockaday, I told them in no uncertain terms to stop funding Labour candidates who only showed an interest in the union at election time. Instead, I said my priority was to make the Labour link work for the union and its members. Unity itself has long since dissolved, having been absorbed by the GMB in 2015, but the point remains. What is the purpose of affiliating a trade union if Labour politicians merely treat them as cash dispensers?

Which brings us to the result of the Communication Workers Union special conference, which took place this Sunday. Its decision notes the distance between Labour and working class aspirations that have opened up under Keir Starmer, and resolves to cut union funding outside of affiliation fees while reserving the right to support candidates, local politicians, and MPs who remain committed to the CWU's objectives. Interestingly, and rightly, this move marks a conscious effort at politicising the union further by developing its own candidates' programme for CWU members and build networks of branch level political officers to push the union and the interests it stands for at community level. As general secretary Dave Ward put it, "less money and support to Westminster Labour. More to Labour MPs, Mayors, Councillors and candidates who have our members' backs."

What a curious pickle Starmer has got Labour into. We have a situation where he's bent the party backwards to attract the rich donors by refusing to commit to anything but the barest minimum, yet is relaxed about spurning the potentially much greater sums offered by trade unions for sticking up for working people, pensioners, and those having to get by on social security. Curious, but not unfathomable. In the topsy turvy world of Starmerism, the route to victory lies in pandering to propertied interests and not building a coalition based on but reaching out beyond Labour's new base. Therefore, the reasoning goes, anything putting distance between Labour and the trade unions is going to curry favour not just among 2019 converts to the Tory cause, but those who haven't voted for the party for years.

There are good reasons to be sceptical. Just as the right say Labour can't win without persuading and taking votes from the Tories, likewise the party won't get anywhere if it dumps on its new base. Mistakenly and misleadingly characterised as young graduates who live in the big cities, Labour has pretty much always enjoyed winning disproportionate vote shares among working age people. Funny that the traditional workers' party regularly manages such a feat. Yet the consistent tacking to the right by Starmer threatens to disassemble this vote. With polls showing poor personal ratings and growing support for the Greens, particularly among younger cohorts, it's almost as if reneging on pledges made when Starmer presented as diet Corbynism with a haircut has been noticed. To reiterate to the hard of thinking, Labour's new core support assembled during the Corbyn years is everywhere. It exists in the red wall, the blue wall, and any other seat you care to mention, and therefore a strategy that wants to take back seats lost, or make inroads into other marginals cannot afford to alienate this support. Doing so is just about the most stupid thing a Labour leader could do. And yet.

As it happens, there is a way forward. Keeping the new base doesn't have to come at the cost of not appealing to Tory voters. And chasing them doesn't have to involve machine gunning the party's feet. The balance is met by articulating interests. Ben Cooper writes in the latest Renewal about Labour's countryside strategy, stressing how an accent on community but also issues like the NHS, transport, and housing have potential to cut through the polarisation that plays into the hands of the Tories. This means offering leadership and acknowledging there are some Tory voters who are gone forever, but in the game of Westminster thrones a party just has to win enough votes, not all of the votes.

Unfortunately, this requires political leadership and a certain hard-headedness, the latter quality Starmer has only shown versus the left. If the leader genuinely believes he's following the recipe book for election victory, then the man is a fool. Preserving, not purging our present coalition is the precondition for winning. This, among other things, means keeping unions on board as Labour's potential messengers in millions of workplaces, and remembering delivering for them is the same as delivering for everyone. Labour's future, if it is to have a future, demands holding the unions close so we can keep our coalition close. To lose one union is careless, but to lose three is self-sabotage. Failure in this regard doesn't just point to more election defeats, but to the viability of the party itself.

Image Credit


Unknown said...

Starmer has no interest in the Labour Party. End of.

Jim Denham said...

You've been taken in by Ward's posturing, Phil.

The option presented by the Executive to the Special Virtual Conference, to maintain the union’s affiliation to the Labour Party, is right. But the detail it contains, a focus on lobbying and supporting the Labour metro mayors, makes no sense.

Dave Ward has moved on a little, but essentially this is a reprise of when he pushed disaffiliation to gain profile against Billy Hayes, whom he defeated for general secretary in 2015. He did that to appear more left-wing, though in fact Hayes, for all his flaws, was running a political campaign in the Labour Party against Royal Mail privatisation.

Public ownership is a cutting-edge issue in the Labour Party. The union should be campaigning much harder for public ownership of Royal Mail and for free publicly-owned broadband.

The push for the conference came not from industrial concerns and workplace activists, but from people in the Head Office communications department. They’ve picked up that lots of people don’t like Starmer, and they’re going for a half-in, half-out policy. It’s an accommodation to Corbynite left populism rather than serious political action.

Blissex said...

«Interestingly, and rightly, this move marks a conscious effort at politicising the union further»

Some years ago one of the heads of a big union, a true social-democrat and perhaps even a socialist, said that he would have liked to have a more political union, but he was mindful that 40% of his members voted Conservative. I think that was not because they were fooled by tory propaganda, but because the labor unions also represent a lot of lower middle class people, with their typical "petty bourgeois" interests. My usual claim is that the era of mass-rentierism makes for new problems for the "left", and that includes for the labor unions.

«an accent on community but also issues like the NHS, transport, and housing have potential to cut through the polarisation»

I am heavily skeptical about this, because people vote on their primary vote-moving issue, not on the best selections of issues (the "spatial model" of voting).

As always, "housing" is the great divide, because for some (mostly in the south-east) it is a colossal benefit, redistributing to them £30,000-£40,000 per year (and upwards) from the lower classes. That is so big that obliterates most other consideration.

The real opportunity of the left is that many property owners in most of the UK are actually getting screwed by the ruthless determination of Conservatives, New Labour, LibDems to keep property costs inflating in the souh-east by concentrating public and business investment there.

The other opportunity is that besides the big yearly profits, most property rentiers really treasure property as a way to obtain security, and an offer of security through well structured social insurance might be more attractive to them than the risks of the property markets.

Blissex said...

«Starmer has no interest in the Labour Party.»

That is optimistic: of course Starmer is not indifferent to it, he must have an interest in the Labour Party, as it is a political rival to the New Labour Party he belongs to. It is 20 years later and many people still don't take seriously Blair's statement that the New Labour Party is not the Labour Party (even if it really wants to control the name and symbol to cash in that 25% of votes that still vote reflexively anything with a "Labour" rosette on it). To some extent the parliamentary New Labour Party overlaps with the parliamentary Cooperative Party, but of course it is not quite the same either (even some Cooperative Party MPs might be too "socialist")..

Look at it that way and everything makes sense: the respectable, upper-middle class New Labour Party is sensibly prioritizing the purge of the entrysts that infiltrated it from the "fringe", "extremist" Labour Party. Have people forgotten the trove of internal party staff emails describing as "trots" people to the right of Gaitskell or Hattersley, never mind a "trot" like Wilson?

«To lose one union is careless, but to lose three is self-sabotage. Failure in this regard doesn't just point to more election defeats, but to the viability of the party itself.»

This argument is not something that will ever persuade New Labour to accept the labor unions except as cash dispensers:

* For ideological reasons: New Labour is all for "labour market reform", and thoroughly against collective action by employees.

* For practical reasons: the Conservatives win 14m votes without the support of the labor unions, and without any significant membership or activist base, but purely as a marketing machine (selling a very popular "product": redistribution from lower to middle and upper classes starting at £30,000-40,000 per year via big housing cost inflation). New Labour believe they can do the same.

BCFG said...

Marx warned us about those who propose 'practical' politics over a century ago.

It should come as no surprise that the low priest of pro imperialism, Jim Denham, call for (in defence of the pro imperialist party system):

"serious political action."

Am I the only one in the room who finds it slightly, ever so teeny- weeny bit problematical that the lifestyle this entire serious politics is built on is literally destroying the planet and the living environment and is totally unsustainable?

The time for radical opposition to all currently existing social conditions is now an urgent duty, the time for 'serious politics' is now over.

On that score, please can I urge genuine leftists to check out the latest brilliant episode of the peerless renegade inc, this time with Anthropologist, Jason Hickel:

It really is essential viewing and the perfect antidote to that human filth, Jim Denham.

Jim Denham said...

Am I the only one in the room who finds the weird "BCFG"'s claim that opposing the CWU leadership's stunt is "slightly, ever so teeny- weeny bit problematical" and that his(I presume "BCFG" is a "he") is just a teeny-weeny bit mad in claiming that opposing Dave Ward "is literally destroying the planet and the living environment and is totally unsustainable"?

Blissex said...

«without any significant membership or activist base, but purely as a marketing machine (selling a very popular "product": redistribution from lower to middle and upper classes [...] New Labour believe they can do the same.»

They need to differentiate their product offer a bit though, offer a bit more than the Conservatives have done: for example offer tory voters the full or partial deductibility from taxes, or at least from taxable income, of mortgage or re-mortgage payments, to be funded by extending VAT to residential rents, for example, or another increase in NICs, or more cuts in benefits to non-retired "scroungers". Starmer must prove that New Labour really, as Umunna claimed, “wants to be "on the side of those who are doing well"”. Those who can afford to buy property are a big constituency that largely votes as a block on their interests, while non-owners and workers often don't vote, never mind as a block, because no major party represents them now, because their vote is invalid as they tend to be "trots".

Another offer that New Labour could make would be to put back the state pension age of women to 65 or even better at 60, to be paid with raising the state pension age of men to 70 or 75, describing it as more equality for women, as compensation for their unequal lifetimes of being abused and violated by men. Women are a big constituency that largely votes as a block on "gender issues", while men don't vote on "gender issues" as a block.

Offering these policies would make their political product competitive with that of the Conservatives, and if New Labour headhunted Rishi Sunak as leader, I guess that "soft tory" voters would be really swayed over.

Blissex said...

«Marx warned us about those who propose 'practical' politics over a century ago»

The key words here are “over a century ago”. The beardy guy expected that "capitalism" would collapse Real Soon Now, so he thought that negotiating with it would be a waste of time compared to ending it.
And "technically" he was half right: the "capitalism" of his time did collapse soon, but was not followed by "worker capitalism" (AKA "socialism") and then "community capitalism" (AKA "communism"), but by other, still oligarchic, forms of "capitalism".

So what are we to do while waiting for the inevitable collapse of "capitalism"?

#1 Bend over and beg "may have some more sir" as per New Labour inclination?

#2 Fight to negotiate hard for a better deal as in social-democracy within the constraining but somewhat flexible boundaries of a mixed economy?

#3 Keep repeating that both bending over or hard negotiation is pointless because capitalism will be over Real Soon Now if only One Last Heave happens and Scargill finally becomes our benevolent Supreme Commissar Of The People?

These are the eternal questions (as in Vladimir's "What to do?"). In the absence of explicit, realistic answers, "bend over" is the default. Rah! Rah! :-(

BCFG said...

"So what are we to do while waiting for the inevitable collapse of "capitalism"?"

The point of my post was the climate emergency means serious politics (or status quo politics to give it a more apt name) is a living threat to humanity and that it is our duty as humans (forget class for a minute) to ditch it and engage in non serious politics, insulate Britain or that guy dressed as a life sized Broccoli make more sense than Keir Starmer or New labour.

So it isn't 1, 2 or 3 under your options. The only logical conclusion is the end of exchange, there really is no other logical road to take. And as the tipping points approach (i.e. irreversible climate catastrophe), that will come from either a comatose working class magically waking up, or it will be a top down mess that will probably end in events that will make Hitler seem like a choir boy by comparison. So, in the absence of a revolutionary class, I support any movement that pops up and which attempts to make serious politics ungovernable, which is why I support insulate Britain's tactics, even if they are all middle class guardian readers. But note that I do not support populists like the anti Vaccine/Mask brigade who simply are counter revolutionaries and proponents of fake rebellion.

Incidentally, I don't think capitalism did collapse into oligarchic capitalism, this was the path capitalism would and could only take. It is hard wired into the logic of the market and competition, but is also cyclical. I would accept that capitalism has entered a qualitatively different phase, but that is more around globalisation and the development of the world market and the establishment of a world value, where the socially necessary Labour time in China impacts on Britain. In other words, socially necessary labour time is no longer time and place constrained and is no longer a given in any time and place.