GMB Union’s move today shows that unions feel sidelined by Labour


5:19 pm - September 4th 2013

by Sunny Hundal    


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The GMB Union’s unexpected decision today to lower their affiliation fees from £1.2m a year to £150,000 is a warning shot that doesn’t bode well for the Labour party.

The GMB added this ominous statement to their press release: “It is expected that there will further reductions in spending on Labour party campaigns and initiatives.”

Much more will come out this weekend as the annual TUC conference kicks off in Bournemouth, but it’s telling that no one from any of the major unions was willing to make a statement on BBC World at One today. Only Ronnie Barker from the Bakers Union came on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if other unions follow suit.

There’s a tendency for many within Labour to see their relations with Trade Unions as a battle of wills rather than an equal relationship. So many will interpret this as a ‘warning shot’ from GMB that requires a ‘robust response to show we’re not weak’ etc. But I think they forget that there are far more Britons who see their union as more relevant to their lives than the Labour party.

As George Eaton points out, the GMB has decided to slash its funding in advance, rather than seek to recruit members to the party. And they’re not even bothered about picking a public fight over this.

This is bad for the Labour not just because it deprives of the money, but because it indicates relations are so bad the unions are largely unwilling to work with Labour to make it a mass-membership party. They’re essentially saying: ‘if you’re going to treat us like this, then don’t expect us to help you‘.

If that attitude among unions hardens and becomes entrenched, especially if the Labour leadership decide to take it as a personal attack, then expect more unions to follow and eventually look at disaffiliation.

Tom Watson can see where this is headed too, hence his blogpost this morning.

I emailed a well-connected union worker today, who had this to say:

From the perspective of many grassroots Labour activists neither the leader’s stance or the GMB’s response look great since it will make the party’s job of defeating the government that bit harder. We need to be united and campaigning hard in the run-up to the electon to defeat the Coalition. But the reality is the leader’s office appear to have failed to consider the full and severe financial implications of their plans before Ed made his speech. The unions have literally kept the Labour Party out of bankruptcy these last few years and are owed respect. While in an ideal world there would be a much more diverse set of donations, we are simply not there yet and the election clock is ticking.

The question now is what will other unions do. I’d be astonished if CWU and Unite weren’t considering something similar. It’s a nightmare that is keeping a lot of people awake at night right now.

Ed Miliband needs to do two things: to reassure the unions and make them feel this is a partnership not an antagonistic marriage headed for divorce. He also needs to push forward with bold changes so the party engages and empowers its members, and more are persuaded to join and take part.

If, on the other hand, they decide that the logical response is to replace union funding with donations from rich people, say goodbye to the Trade union link and say hello to the slow demise of the Labour party.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Trade Unions ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. Man on Clapham Omnibus

I am not so sure that the demise of the Labour party will be that slow. Unions, no longer represent most of the working class because most historic working class no longer see collective action as in their best economic interests. Labour have been watered down Tories for years so the historic link between them and the Unions has long been broken. It just took Falkirk for both parties to recognise it.

As a memeber of the GMB, I am delighted that the union has cut its contributions to Labour. A significant number of members aren’t Labour supporters, but are still expected to affiliate to the party. Finance reform needs to be real, and has to be properly policed. Ed Miliband needs to accept that his party will get far less money for both local and national campaigns in the future. It’s a great day in the reforming of financing political parties

So, as Labour is no longer fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, when will we see the unions create a new left-wing party?

@3 What like TUSC? Or whatever comes out of Left Unity? (if anything)

The GMB’s finances are pretty weak and the talks of merging with Unison seem to have stalled. They have been making strong efforts to poach members from other unions, completely ignoring the Bridlington Agreement, which may have played a part in the talks stopping. It’s easy to imagine that this suggests an element of desperation. They’ve always been more inclined to table thumping and grandstanding anyway. So this grand gesture is just their kind of silly confrontational behaviour and saves them cash when they’re skint.

I’m not sure many other unions will follow, after all who else but Labour have they got? The lessons of the SDP splitting the vote in the 80s still ring in more sensible ears.

Having said that, our politics remains in crisis for many more reasons than Ed Miliband’s leadership.

The current crisis has deep historical roots but has clearly reached some sort of end-game.Once several major Unions had been captured by The Far-Left some sort of split became inevitable with the subsequent loss of both revenues & the glue that held Labours quarreling tribes together.
Without that old “organic link” with the self-appointed Leadership of The Working Class just what do Labour supporters have in common ?

This one is easy. The levy being strictly optional (the pro-Cameron media lie through their Blairite teeth on that point, as they do when they still talk about “block votes”), all levy-payers and other affiliated members should be declared individual members of the Labour Party, and that would be that.

Since the introduction of opting out, there have been eight Conservative Prime Ministers. Eight. None of them has changed the law to require opting in, even though that it would always have bankrupted the Labour Party overnight. Something about it just cannot be done. I do not know what that something is. But it obviously exists.

Declaring levy-payers to be individual members would be little more than a semantic change, and would merely constitute a move from a less efficient to a more efficient means of the doing the same things. A thing which already happens, anyway.

You only pay the levy is you choose to. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or cannot read a basic form. There is no conceivable reason to pay the levy unless you are already a Labour supporter. By paying it, you already even get a vote in Leadership Elections. You are a Labour Party member. Entirely by choice. You ought to be classified as one. Problem solved.

This is what happens when you let your enemy write your plan. Miliband was suckered into making war on the Unions by the right, and this is the well-deserved result.

9. Paul peter Smith

New Labour showed nothing but contempt for the Labour movement, not only did they fail to reverse any of the Tories anti union legislation they added to it with such gems as exempting the UK from the human rights at work charter. Why has it taken this long for even one union to push back against a neo-thatcherite Labour party? I’m not sure what Silly Milly is in political terms, seems like just another cardboard cut out ‘profesional’ politician who thinks we’ll benefit from their vast experience of nothing.

10. Man on Clapham Omnibus

9. Paul peter Smith

It’s not just that though is it? Trade Unions have withered in response to the decline of large industry and the development of a presumption that negated collective bargaining in favour of indivdual bargaining. Ideologically, we are now all(or sufficiently all) Thatchers children, notwithstanding the remaining few elders smoking their pipes in the tepee that is the TUC.

@10

You’d be surprised at the number of youngsters joining unions. Having said that, you’re right that they are losing members. The fragmentation of the public and health services breaks branches up into smaller ones that are harder to service, with negative consequences. It could almost have been planned that way…

12. Man on Clapham Omnibus

11. Cherub

Which is why the Labour party are having their ‘George Dangerfield’ moment

13. Paul peter Smith

The unions are even more relevant in the current UK working environment of every Wo/Man for themselves. Whether they are fit for purpose or not is another matter and as for worrying about splitting the vote, what difference does it make if we have branded Tories in power or crypto Tories.
Bite the bullet, bin Labour and its champagne non-socialists and start again with a representative party. Sure it will take time but we’ve had a conservative government since 1979 so what difference will another decade make?

@13

You need to get out more and perhaps engage in real politics, not the angry stuff you make up yourself.

15. Man on Clapham Omnibus

14. Cherub

It’s a question of seeing the wood from the trees.What Paul Smith is saying is right. Where he is wrong is no-one needs to advocate anything. The collapse of Labour will continue automatically. He is also mistaken to believe that the Unions attempt at politics,should there be one, would be any more successful that Arthur Scargill’s.

16. Paul peter Smith

@14 Cherub
I am angry but as I’m a community project manager engaged in digital inclusion, poverty issues, community cohesion, access to adult education and all the rest, I’m already ‘out there’. Maybe your confusing the Westminster bubble and navel gazing blogs like LibCon/Guido et al, with the real political concerns of the actual electorate?

@15 MOCO
Dont get me started about Scargill.

Trade Union barons flexing industrial muscle? What’s new?

Tell me the old, old story…

Like the Bourbons, learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

This whole business is orchestrated. The union chiefs really do not feel sidelined. In actual fact they would shit themselves if they had genuine progressive influence over the Labour Party and its policies cos then they’d have to use it. No, this is all about making Ed less Red, not that he ever was red, and giving him the excuse he needs when in power not to reverse anything the Coalition has done. They are keeping open the option of donations which will no doubt be forthcoming in the run up to 2015.

“The union chiefs really do not feel sidelined. In actual fact they would shit themselves if they had genuine progressive influence over the Labour Party ”

Fortunately, there is not much prospect of that. Look at the track record of trade union advice on a national issue of fundamental importance:

C. 2001, John Edmunds, gen sec of the great GMB union, toured the country telling us:

The GMB believes that joining the single currency is the best way to protect British jobs and keep a strong and healthy economy.

We are already feeling the effects of our indecision on the euro.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1724128.stm

Now John Edmunds wasn’t just your ordinary trade union boss. According to his entry in Wikipedia:

“Edmonds grew up in South London, and was educated at Christ’s Hospital School and Oriel College, Oxford”

And it wasn’t just John Edmunds:

John Monks has marked the first ever address by a TUC general secretary to a Liberal Democrat conference by setting out his vision for a Britain at the heart of Europe.

He also called on the prime minister to be more active in winning the political argument over the euro. [BBC website 19 September 2000]

20. Paul peter Smith

@17 Bob b
No its not new but it has been out of fashion for a while.
………………………..
I certainly dont want a return to the madness of the 70’s or to see dinosaur union baron’s dictating economic policy. But how about some kind of parity between employer and employee whereby companies remain in business and people remain in work because in the long run thats whats best for nearly all of us.
The problem is the main parties think that however much they alienate their own supporters most will stick with what they know and vote as they always have. UKIP is scaring the Tories more than Labour but it shouldn’t. I work in one of the most die hard Labour constituencies, a place where ten years ago placing a ‘Vote Conservative’ poster in your window would a have warranted Police protection. You should have seen how many posters of all parties appearead last election, mostly UKIP, do we really want the little Englanders to become credible? Or do we need Labour to get a grip or f–k off?

“I certainly dont want a return to the madness of the 70?s or to see dinosaur union baron’s dictating economic policy. ”

Let’s profoundly hope it stays that way. Trade union advice on economic issues was mostly disastrous as we can see from the issue of whether Britain should join the Euro.

“But how about some kind of parity between employer and employee whereby companies remain in business and people remain in work because in the long run thats whats best for nearly all of us.”

The trouble with that is that trade union membership in private sector employment is thin on the ground. Trade union members are mostly in public sector jobs where the employers are ultimately tax payers, like you and me, who are pressing for greater management efficiency in delivery of services and reduced subsidies. This NAO report in the news is not encouraging:

The government’s flagship welfare reform has been badly managed, is “overambitious” and poor value for money, the spending watchdog has said.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23963867

@21 Is that even true? Because given the industry my union USDAW covers, I’d be very surprised to discover that they’re mostly public sector workers.

“Is that even true?”

Maybe lots of workers in retail belong to USDAW but on trade union membership generally, this report from the BIS department in 2012 seems to be comprehensive and definitive: Trade Union Membership 2011
http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/BISCore/employment-matters/docs/T/12-p77-trade-union-membership-2011.pdf

– Union membership levels in the private sector rose slightly, by 43 thousand to 2.5 million in 2011, after falling sharply, by a cumulative 450 thousand, in the previous three years.

– In the public sector, union membership levels fell by 186 thousand to 3.9 million in 2011, after remaining broadly stable at around 4.1 million over the previous six years.

As for the numbers in employment to compare with trade union membership numbers, the latest employment figures in August from the ONS were:

“The employment rate for those aged from 16 to 64 was 71.5%, up 0.1 percentage points from January to March 2013 and up 0.4 from a year earlier. There were 29.78 million people in employment aged 16 and over, up 69,000 from January to March 2013 and up 301,000 from a year earlier”
http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/august-2013/statistical-bulletin.html

25. Man on Clapham Omnibus

20. Paul peter Smith

‘But how about some kind of parity between employer and employee whereby companies remain in business and people remain in work because in the long run thats whats best for nearly all of us’

But its not what good for all of us! The problem is we live in an economic order where power is based on wealth. Moreover capitalism’s natural inclination is to concentrate and centralize capital. Think Cadbury and more
recently Vodophone.This will necessarily lead to inter alia reductions in labour requirements . Furthermore, most money is no longer created in the UK and the US through capitalist production. Most is created through creative investment, thanks to the central banks. Until the bond crash happens that is!

‘The problem is the main parties think that however much they alienate their own supporters most will stick with what they know and vote as they always have’

The problem is that Governments need large cash injections from the private sector which is why they predominantly do what the private sector tells them to do. No-one in Government would shaft the City of London, for example, despite in being the biggest offshore haven in the world.

Again its wealth and power.

If you’re helping the poor, you are in the most envious position in the world ;a job for life in an ever expanding sector! As long as nobody cuts your funding that is!

The Labour Party was founded by the trade unions and socialists and it embraced socialism by stealth not by revolution, its stated aim was to acquire the means of production for the working-class (clause 4).

Unfortunately, most trade unions were incredibly effective, so much so that capitalism became comfortable for the majority of the working-class. This was also assisted by the founding of the welfare state, paradoxically, what was assumed to be socialism actually legitimated capitalism.

As an ex-trade union member and one of Scargill’s own, I don’t want to see the return of the power wielded by the unions in the 70s. But to remind some commentators up-post, the far-left did not hi-jack labour it was the liberal right.

@26 steveb

Some of the unions opened the door to the right wingers by scuppering The Callaghan government’s plans to use North Sea Oil revenues to modernise the economy. Instead Thatcher used it on the unemployed created by her policies as well as handing our assets to spivs and yuppies. Soviet agents couldn’t have done a better job at ruining this country’s prospects. That’s a hard betrayal to forget.

It was really sad that neither John Monks nor John Edmunds had the faintest understanding of the economics – and downside risks – of monetary unions.

They went round saying how much better off those in Britain with mortgages would be with the lower interest rates then prevailing in the Eurozone area. No understanding then of house-price bubbles.

Naturally, there was no mentioning that only Luxembourg met the eligibility criteria in the Maastricht Treaty for joining European Monetary Union.

This is not a right v left wing issue or a working class v middle class issue.

It was a simple matter of parading blatant ignorance.

They could have read Rudi Dornbusch in Foreign Affairs of September 1996 on Euro Fantasies or his textbook on Macroeconomics (McGraw-Hill) or noted what happened to Bernard Connolly, who worked for the EU Commission and got fired for raising concerns about the then proposed European Monetary Union. See his book: The Rotten Heart of Europe (Faber 1997):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Connolly

29. Tight Anneka

@Bob B #21

Trade union advice on economic issues was mostly disastrous

Unlike the Banks’ advice.

public sector jobs where the employers are ultimately tax payers, like you and me, who are pressing for greater management efficiency in delivery of services and reduced subsidies.

I thought it was The Non-Taxpayers’ Alliance, other fink tanks and the ‘ever so balanced’ newspapers that were pressing for those changes.

The government’s flagship welfare reform has been badly managed, is “overambitious” and poor value for money, the spending watchdog has said.

The NAO report is mild when compared with what is posted on the web since the project was launched.
Yes, it’s a good job that the Unions have lost and that we did not follow the advice of [insert name found in an internet search] who did not have the benefit of hindsight. Who knows, we might not have had all the factory closures and we’d be in the same predicament as Germany.
From the wiki link in #28: “Bernard is the author of the acclaimed and best selling book … ”
Bernard? Not Bernard Connolly or Mr Connolly? Who wrote the orphan entry?

Had you followed earlier threads here you would have quickly appreciated that I’m not an admirer of bankers and banking practices.

There is nothing irrational about being critical of both trade union barons and bankers. Even Alan Greenspan is critical of bankers. In his testimony testimony on 24 October 2008 to the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122476545437862295.html

In effect the GMB leadership has decided to fine the party for the Leader’s disobedience to their wishes. If they were trying to make a case for changing the existing relationship they couldn’t have made a stronger one.

32. Tight Anneka

@Bob B #30.
So Bernard Connolly is okay but AIG, his employer for 11 years, isn’t.

Tight Anneka

“So Bernard Connolly is okay but AIG, his employer for 11 years, isn’t.”

Quite so. About 10 years ago I used to get regular phone calls apparently intended for the then large AIG offices in Croydon. I became so irritated by this that I eventually phoned them up to request that they better inform their callers. It emerged that my regular BT number was very similar to one of their numbers plus an extension number. The annoying calls continued for a while but eventually petered out.

Bernard Connolly was considered an enemy of the EU Commission and that may well have made it difficult for him to find alternative employment. Recall that until Gordon Brown announced HM Treasury policy in June 2003 about joining the Euro, the declared policy of some British government departments was for Britain to join the Euro. As Secretary of State for the DTI, Patricia Hewitt went around the counrtry making speeches extolling the benefits to Britain from joining. That was official DTI policy.

I’ve never met Bernard Connolly but was much engaged in online debates c. 2000 on whether Britain should join the Euro. Some ardent admirers of the Euro were posting then that any opposed to Britain joining the Euro were “insane”. It became verging on impossible to conduct reasoned discussion – not least when critics of European monetary union were held to be insane. For an indication of heavyweight opinion in favour of joining, try: Layard, Buiter, Huhne, Will Hutton, Kenen and Turner: Why Britain should join the Euro
http://cep.lse.ac.uk/layard/RL334D.pdf

The chief economic adviser of Lloyds Bank, Christopher Johnson, produced a Penguin Book: In with the Euro, Out with the Pound. He visited the government department where I worked to deliver an address on the Euro – we clashed.

For an alternative perspective, try De Grauwe: The economics of monetary union (OUP, 9th ed. 2012)

The issue of whether to join the Euro hardly hinges on the career history of Bernard Connolly but his dismissal at the instance of the EU Commission should have set alarm bells ringing.

In the preface to his book: The Rotten Heart of Europe, Connolly expressed appreciation for briefing on the economics of monetary union from the late Rudi Dornbusch and from Olivier Blanchard, who is now chief economist of the IMF. At the time, both were professors at the MIT with international reputations. That should have led anyone with economics nous in the mid 1990s to realise that criticism of European monetary union must have had substance. But that illuminating insight completely bypassed John Monks and John Edmunds.

As said, this is not a right v left issue or a working class v middle class issue. It is more a matter of good economics v bad, as we have come to witness in play out of the Eurozone crisis. What is so worrying is the reflection on the quality of trade union leadership.

Bob B

Even Alan Greenspan is critical of bankers.

Greenspan blames the bankers and the bankers blame Greenspan.
Your link in comment 33 starts with an endorsement from Paul Volcker who was Greenspan’s predecessor at the Federal Reserve.
It’s all very interesting, Bob, but it has little to do with the GMB, the Labour affiliated Trade Unions and their relationship with the Labour Party.

Ceiliog: “It’s all very interesting, Bob, but it has little to do with the GMB, the Labour affiliated Trade Unions and their relationship with the Labour Party.”

I didn’t first introduce bankers into the thread discussion – checkout @29.

Bankers are open to a wide range of criticisms – but then so are trade union barons.

In the last resort, the Labour Party has to attract votes in ballot boxes whatever trade union barons say or however much trade unions contribute to the Labour Party.

Btw for the record, I’m a floating voter having variously voted Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Lib-Dem and Social Democrat, depending on the prevailing circumstances. For me, it’s the analysis and the respective policies that count the most.

36.
Many thanks for posting about your voting patterns. A hands-on approach is much better.
Find someone who suits the constituency and the electorate.
Get to know the person and their family and friends.
Get him or her selected by a Party.(The hardest bit)
Get the candidate elected by the voters.
Keep in touch often.
Say, in gentle terms, when it’s time to go. (Don’t leave it too long)


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