By Professor Keith Ewing, President of the Institute of Employment Rights; Vice President Of The Campaign For Trade Union Freedom.
So Ed Miliband is to have his clause four moment.Â Last month’s announcement of a special conference in spring to endorse Lord Collins’s as yet unwritten proposals on rewriting the Labour Party constitution is a further provocation of the affiliated trade unions which demands a strong response.
The announcement compounds what so far has been the most offensive aspect of Miliband’s onslaught on trade union affiliation – namely, the total contempt it revealed for the Labour Party constitution.
Like Tony Blair before him, Miliband appears to see himself as the owner of the party rather than its leader.
In any democratic party far-reaching changes of the kind announced by Miliband would be for the members, individual and affiliated, to decide after proper deliberation in accordance with the party’s rules and procedures.
They are not matters to be imposed by a leader who seems to have an uncertain grasp not only of his obligations as leader but also of the nature of the party he leads.
It is now for the party to decide if the changes proposed are acceptable – and this should be done before Lord Collins of Highbury begins the work he has been engaged by the leader, not the party, to undertake.
The best place for the party to do so would be at this year’s Labour conference, where the party can make it known to its leader whether or not he has crossed the line.
In my view a gauntlet has been thrown at the feet of the trade union general secretaries.
They can meekly accept and surrender the party their forbears created.
Or they can stand together to defend it, in the courts if necessary, in the event of changes being imposed in a way contrary to the rules and constitution, which are legally binding documents.
At the heart of party structure is the principle of “collective affiliation,” whereby trade unions – not trade unionists – are members of the party, with membership based on the number of political levy-paying members.
It is a form of membership that informs every aspect of party organisation, from the constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to the parliamentary Labour Party, from the national executive committee to conference.
Collective affiliation is a historic principle of continuing contemporary importance.
It was not necessary for Miliband to sell the party’s soul to protect himself from a beating in PMQs.
The case he made for the Labour Party’s links with trade unions one day after his fateful speech was an eloquent one, and should have been used to defend the constitution rather than dismantle it.
It is now open to trade union general secretaries to make it clear that what is being done is unacceptable.
Their relationship with the party is perfectly legitimate and they should not allow themselves to be pushed out.
If there are those in the party who are uncomfortable with trade unions as bedfellows, they should leave and form another party.
In making it clear that they will not be cuckolded in this way trade union leaders can also show that they will not stand back and watch their party being turned into a pale shadow of the US Democrats, first stripped of its democratic socialist ideology, now stripped of its historic labour movement membership.
That’s only the half of it.
The other offensive aspect of Miliband’s onslaught is the equal contempt it reveals for the affiliated unions, as members of the party, along with the contempt for individual trade unionists who are expected to go along with these proposals without even having been consulted in advance of the changes.
Miliband appears to have bought the Tory line on trade union “bosses” hook, line and sinker.
Had he any experience of the movement he purports to lead he would have known that his proposals are not in the gift of general secretaries to deliver.
Trade unions are democratic organisations, in which, unlike the Labour Party, the views of members cannot be casually denied.
There are over a dozen unions now affiliated to the party they created over a century ago, and which at least in 1945 delivered an outstanding government.
It will be for each of these unions to decide whether or not they accept the new relationship proposed by Miliband.
Some may quite rightly see the proposed termination of collective membership as a form of constructive dismissal and act accordingly.
But however they respond this is a matter which will have to be considered by each trade union individually.
Unfortunately for Miliband there is no reason to believe that the executive committees of every union will agree with these proposals, or that they will agree to amend their rules to set up the machinery necessary to make them work.
Nor is there any reason why they should.
At a stroke Miliband has liberated trade union political funds, putting millions of pounds of pocket money annually at the disposal of general secretaries and executive committees to engage in political work that is not necessarily Labour Party-oriented. Once the habit develops of spending money in this way it will be hard to break.
Miliband’s nightmare goes on.
The idea that trade union members will want to become associate members of the Labour Party, rather than members of organisations associated with the Labour Party, betrays if not naive optimism then extraordinary hubris.
And so does the idea that trade union general secretaries and executives will allow themselves simply to become recruiting sergeants for Labour.
But even if they did, how is a diminished trade union role going to pay the bills for all the national, constituency, and electoral work of the party?
The first duty of the leader of the Labour Party is to ensure its survival.
We can only assume that these calculations have been made and that the figures are available. The sooner they are released the better.
Responsibility for this disaster is Miliband’s, and his alone. But it is a disaster that could be avoided by the mobilisation of the affiliated trade unions, along with those CLPs which are equally dismayed by what is going on.
By his conduct Miliband has reminded us of a form of Labour Party politics that we thought had passed. We need to ensure that it has.
Why? Because a coherent trade union political strategy can best be served by working in coalition with others within a political party that has a chance of forming the government.
The strength of our voice within that party will depend not only on the resources we devote to it, but also on the political skills we are able to deploy within it.
Since 1994 – if not before – the latter have often been found wanting.
Miliband has landed a heavy blow. But this is not the time to walk away from the fight.