Labour face a serious threat to its existence. Many Labour right-wingers want to dust off the Blairite bible thinking they’ll find the path to serfdom. This could inspire a double divorce which will see Labour’s affiliated trade unions and the Scottish Labour party depart the Labour family. Seem far fetched? It’d be naïve to dismiss it.
A new independent Scottish Labour
This was given real impetus this week by the resignation from Scottish Labour’s front bench of former leadership candidate Neil Findlay. On the way out he dropped a hefty hint that Scottish Labourism needed to break free of London HQ.
Such sentiments aren’t new. Former leader in Scotland Johann Lamont, resigning after the referendum last year, described the treatment of Scottish Labour by ‘London’ as that of a mere “branch office”. In a recent conversation with activists in Scotland it is clear that such sentiments have been bubbling up for years, but were managed by a number of strategies including taking Scottish Labour’s ‘high risers’ down south for neat jobs with or as MPs. Such dissertion has been noted in Scotland. Why do Scottish Labour’s talented crop itch to run down south? At least now a hefty batch of those will now have no choice but ‘stay hame’ and reengage if they want to restart their careers. It would be hard now however to imagine this old crop now being of much use. Baggage matters. Findlay is one of a new generation who can make a clean start, whatever form this takes.
Labour can no longer harbour ambitions to speak simultaneously to the desires of middle England and those of very different Scottish voters – this is a circle that can no longer be squared. But the complaints of centralisation that many Scottish socialists hold are very much present in other corners of the United Kingdom. Whatever shape it takes, Labour needs to radically decentralise and democratise fast
Precedents: Two spring to mind. One, the SDLP in northern Ireland have long taken the Labour whip in the commons, however informally, and there isn’t any obvious reason why this cannot be done with an independent Scottish Labour party. The other is the Scottish Green Party. It is completely separate in organisational terms from the Green Party in England and Wales. On an organisational front the Liberals’ federal structure, for all that its worth now in a broken party, provides a mid-way meeting point between the status quo and the a (semi) federal constitutional settlement that could be round the corner. This would represent a sort of half way house between the full divorce and ‘reforms’ probably to be offered by the out-going Jim Murphy.
Labour can no longer harbour ambitions to speak simultaneously to the desires of middle England and those of very different Scottish voters – this is a circle that can no longer be squared. But the complaints of centralisation that many Scottish socialists hold are very much present in other corners of the United Kingdom. Whatever shape it takes, Labour needs to radically decentralise and democratise fast. This will need to occur whether a new independent Scottish Labour party emerges or not.
This old chestnut has been rolling around the floor of Labour conferences for 20 years. This however is no reason to dismiss it. A fundamental breach has occurred in the great Labour compact that Blairites have never grasped: without union money and resources, the Labour party cannot exist. Plus, and although those on the right will deny it, without the unions the party’s spiritual core will disappear.
A strong union movement equals a strong Labour party. Yet, the ‘Labour’ Party of the last 20 years has treated their union brethren like that of an undesirable family member they invite to Christmas dinner out of politeness or fear for their inheritance. Unions have had enough.
Miliband foolishly pushed this particular envelope by embarking upon his ‘reforms’ of the Labour-union link. This ‘Blairite melodrama’, as coined by Chartist’s Peter Kenyon, will push union money, union people and union influence away from the party. Many say this reform will redesign the union link by democratising the way union members interact with the party, but with many union members already seeing the party of ‘Labour’ as distant and irrelevant to them it’s hard to see where the required numbers of engaged union members to pay dues will come from.
So – Unions have a decision to make, one to be expedited if a neo-Blairite wins the party’s leadership context.
In the UK, the stature of the unions is at a low ebb. Membership is no longer declining, but it isn’t rising either. More importantly, its influence in British politics has never been poorer. The movement needs new solutions to organise and politicise the work force around workplace issues. This needs to be the base of its renewed political relevance. Unions need to be re-popularised – something the Labour party has failed to help with for 20 years plus. If the party continues with this stance, the trade union movement needs to find its own way
Precedent: In 2005 a similar breach occurred in the United States that has recast the political role of ‘labor’ in the states. Although organised ‘labor’ in the US has never had constitutional links to either the Democratic or Republican parties that we have here in Britain, the TUC-like umbrella organisation in the US – the AFL-CIO – had deep financial and resource-based ties with Democrats; ties that were given life through the funding of lobbying activities in Washington. Although this breach occurred within the union movement itself, the issues presented here are similar to that above as it goes straight to the heart of unions’ relations with electoral politics in Britain.
Frustrated by the lack of bang that union buck was getting through lobbying drives directed at Congress, a service sector union – the SEIU – broke away from the AFL-CIO to put money into campaigns and front-line organising. The SEIU has been so successful with its Organising to Win campaigns it has in fact attracted attention from Britain. The SEIU has not stopped being relevant to Democratic party politics either. It funds specific campaigns and loans out recruitment officers to the elections campaigns of candidates in the same way unions do for centre-left parties everywhere, but it does so on its terms.
In the UK, the stature of the unions is at a low ebb. Membership is no longer declining, but it isn’t rising either. More importantly, its influence in British politics has never been poorer. The movement needs new solutions to organise and politicise the work force and around workplace issues. This needs to be the base of its renewed political relevance. Unions need to be re-popularised – something the Labour party has failed to help with for 20 years plus. If the party continues with this stance, the trade union movement will need to find its own way. Focusing upon its own political campaigning and organising can be complemented by its funding of individual election campaigns of sponsored MPs (for constituencies of internal party contests). This would provide a better targeted and independent use of union resources.
These two fissures opening up within the Labour party are two legacies of new Labour. An institutionalised and ideological neglect of its Scottish and trade union traditions without which the Labour party would never exist. The leadership candidates will have to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt.