Everything you need to know about the Labour-union row in five minutes

High stakes for the Labour party in its clash with the unions
High stakes for the Labour party in its clash with the unions
Alex Stevenson By

Labour versus the trade unions. I thought they were supposed to be friends?

They are more than friends. Forget Nick Clegg and David Cameron's coalition marriage: their relationship is the real marriage of politics. Trade unions and the Labour party are very different, but play a symbiotic mutually-supporting role to the other. The trade unions provide the vast majority of the party's funding. And they also keep those career-minded pie-in-the-sky politician types in touch with 'ordinary' workers. In return, Labour provides the political movement which union types know they need if they want their policies to ever actually become reality.

So why on Earth would the two fall out?

All relationships have their ups and downs, and this one is no different. Every so often something comes along which disturbs their fragile equanimity and gets everyone hot under the collar. Tony Blair did it with his Clause Four moment and got away with it. Now it's Ed Miliband's turn. And in this current confrontation, the stakes are even higher.


But why now?

Events, dear boy or girl, events. I could say that somewhere on the other side of the world a butterfly has flapped its wings, but that would be inaccurate. In fact what happened was that somewhere on the other side of the Palace of Westminster a Labour MP punched a Conservative MP in the face. And it all flowed from there.

This is Eric Joyce, presumably?

Yes - the backbencher whose antics in the Stranger's Bar were quickly followed by a summary expulsion from the parliamentary Labour party. That left his local Labour party in Falkirk with the task of choosing a new candidate for the constituency for the next general election.

A fairly straightforward process, surely.

It should have been. But this is where Unite comes in - according to Labour. It claims that Unite packed the local party with members to get their favoured candidate Karie Murphy, who was working in the office of Labour's general election coordinator Tom Watson, picked for the seat. Unite claims it stuck to the rules. But as the rules allow Unite to pay the first year's membership fees of new members, it wouldn't really have to break them to get what it wanted.

Not good news for Ed Miliband, then. I suppose he had no choice but to take action.

You'd think so, but this is Ed Miliband we're talking about. When he met with Tom Watson, who happens to be palsy with the Unite chief Len McCluskey, last Tuesday night he tried to persuade Watson to remain in the shadow Cabinet. Then came a nightmarish prime minister's questions, when David Cameron lambasted Miliband for being a weak leader.

I saw it. But it looked like Miliband was just trying to laugh it off.

He was until about 25 minutes into the session, when something changed. It looked an awful lot like him realising something had to be done. The following day Watson quit, in a horribly sarcastic letter criticising Miliband's "Buddha-like qualities".

And that was when it all kicked off.

Things were getting hairier and hairier for Miliband. Watson's resignation meant he was being forced into actually doing something. And with McCluskey making warlike noises, voicing all sorts of threats and generally engaging in a bit of chest-beating, it looked like Ed was being pushed into a fight he didn't want to be in at all.

So this was another classic example of Miliband, quivering in fear, about to bottle it again?

Well, not quite. Labour referred the case to the police, taking the whole affair to a much higher level. That horrified Unite. It looked for the first time like Miliband actually meant business.

I don't understand. Ed Miliband, being decisive?

This was also the weekend when Andy Murray won Wimbledon, remember. We are living in a whole new world of possibilities now.

Unite is just one union, though. There are loads more linked to Labour who aren't affected at all.

There are 14 other unions, in fact. Up until then this was nothing to do with them. But now Miliband, finding himself placed in an invidious position he never wanted to be in, actually decided he wanted to escalate the fight. Which is where we are now.

Surely this is crazy?

Not really. It's an opportunity. Labour has been in the pocket of the unions, as the cliché goes, for almost all of its history. What Miliband is now proposing to attempt is a bid to bypass them altogether. He wants to do what the unions have been trying to avoid for decades: actually telling their members that part of their subscription fees is funding the Labour party's activities.

Hang on. What are you saying? I'm a union member, but I don't care for Labour.

Well, if you're a member of one of the 14 trade unions affiliated to Labour who don't offer an opt-out option on their membership form (Unison is the only union which does) then you'll have been funding Labour for years.

This does not make me happy. I am not happy. I am angry.

Miliband thinks it makes you feel disconnected from politics.

I hate Miliband. I hate them all.

Well, there we are then. His big idea now is to offer you, as a union member, the choice. By making the Labour link clearer it will be the individual who is affiliated with the Labour party, not the unions. They will have actively chosen to be affiliated to Labour - and it will be the Labour party who has their contact details, etc, etc.

But I hate Labour.

Mmm. In that case it sounds like you would be one of those who would actually stop funding the Labour party.

Isn't that, you know, a bad idea for the Labour party though?

Well, this has happened before. After the General Strike the Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin legislated to do exactly this, disaffiliating the unions from the Labour party and forcing union members to 'contract in' to Labour.

And how did that work out?

Labour party funding dropped by nearly a fifth.

Ouch. Miliband is being both bold and stupid, then.

That is what those in the world of Westminster diplomatically refer to as 'courageous'.

Why's he doing it, then?

Because, pushed into a confrontation he didn't want to be in, there is only one way he can emerge from this as a winner. That's by gambling with his party's financial future. The stakes are high. If he succeeds, he'll have established a new way forward for Labour which genuinely empowers the party. He may even open the door to breaking the party funding impasse. That would be a huge achievement.

He's not going to do it though, is he?

Let's watch this space...

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