Sunday, 8 September 2013

GMB withdrawing its support really could be the end of the road for the Labour Party.

GMB, on of the UK’s largest trades unions announced this week that it will cut its funding to the Labour Party from £1.2million to just £150,000. A move prompted by leader Ed Milliband’s failure to understand the relationship between his party and the unions.

A spokesperson for GMB told the leadership had ‘expressed considerable regret about the apparent lack of understanding of the impact the proposals mooted by Ed Milliband will have on the collective nature of trades union engagement with the Labour Party.’

Earlier this year in response to the ‘scandal’ surrounding the involvement of UNITE in the selection of a candidate to fight the Falkirk by-election Ed Milliband put forward proposals to change the way the Labour Party is funded, under which union members will have to ‘opt in’ to supporting the party rather than have a portion of their membership fee paid as a political levy.

The spokesperson for GMB went on to say that the union leadership saw it as a ‘source of great regret to the union that the party that had been formed to represent the interests of working people intends to end the collective engagement of trades unions in the party they helped to form.’

GMB have also announced they will cut their wider political fund and the donations the union makes to individual constituency parties.

Tom Watson, formerly Labour’s campaign director, warned in a blog post this week that this could be ‘the beginning of the end’ for the link between the Labour Party and the unions. He went on to say that if so it would be ‘a very serious development that threatens a pillar of our democracy that has endured for over a hundred years.’

In an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the issue shadow Treasury Minister Rachel Reeves told the BBC that reducing the amount it gives to Labour was ‘ a decision for the GMB’ and that ‘most of the money that the Labour Party receives comes from ordinary donations.’

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, also speaking to the BBC, said ‘I hope this is not a piece of petty retribution. I would hope the GMB are above that.’

Other unions are also thought to be reconsidering their relationship with the Labour Party in light of Mr Milliband’s reform plans, earlier this year Len McCluskie of UNITE warned that if his union were to withdraw its funding it could ‘bankrupt’ the party.

It would be easy to see this as just another part of the traditional build up to conference season, a ‘crisis’ involving the Labour Party seems to be as integral to this as overweight character actors in drag is to the Panto season. Other unions have taken their funding ball home, the RMT did so a few years ago, and the sky didn’t fall down, this time though Tom Watson might be right and the marriage of convenience between Labour and the unions could be about to end in an acrimonious divorce.

To be honest it was never a very happy marriage to start with, the era when union barons were invited round to Downing Street for beer and sandwiches by Labour prime ministers was very short. For most of their shared history it was a relationship marked by resentment on the part of the unions that the party their members were funding was so unresponsive to their concerns and frustration on the part of the Labour Party that the union barons seemed unable to grasp the difficult balancing act between priorities and pragmatism inherent to parliamentary politics.

As in any divorce their will be winners and losers. The unions, if they were to withdraw their funding from the Labour Party, could regain a little of their lost significance as other parties turn to them for funding. Labour though could lose big time, the party’s coffers are empty and much of its grassroots organisation is moribund; a slow decline might be about to turn into a tailspin into doom.

Even if the other unions don’t withdraw their funding the GMB have knocked another nail into the political coffin of Ed Milliband, when he addresses the TUC conference in Bournemouth this week their comrades might well hammer in the rest.

Faced with a ‘scandal’ over selecting a candidate for the Falkirk by-election, which, incidentally, turned out not to be a scandal after all since an internal party inquiry found no rules had been breeched, he acted too quickly. He listened to the siren voices of the Blairites who told him that this crisis was an opportunity to dump the unions for good and move into a bright future where compliant ‘supporters’ hand over money to the party and don’t trouble their fluffy little heads with things like policy.

That won’t happen, ours is an age when everyone has an opinion and the means by which to broadcast it to the world. Any political party that thinks its members are just going to hand over their money and politely ask where they should post the bundle of leaflets they’ve been given in return is living in the past.

If he has provoked the unions into withdrawing their financial backing Ed Milliband will have brought his party to ruin; he might also have sown the seeds of its revival. The Labour Party badly needs to dump the marketing and cynical triangulation that characterised the Blair and Brown years and get back to being a ground up party that speaks for the people who are being ground down by austerity.

If the Labour Party is going to have a long term future it needs a new and more resolute leader with the guts to talk honestly about its core values.

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