There is a serious conversation to be had about the power of the unions and what it means for party democracy. This is not itby Richard Seymour / March 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Some arguments are rather urgent right now: housing, the economy, climate change. Whether Jennie Formby or Jon Lansman should be the general secretary of the Labour Party is probably not one of them.
And yet this issue has produced a bounty of steaming hot takes and garbled polemic on social media. In the first instance, Lansman’s candidacy provoked a storm of hyperventilating accusations of ego-crusading, “splitting the left vote” and, depressingly, “Zionism.”
Subsequently, Lansman’s ally, Christine Shawcroft, said in a now-deleted Facebook post that she could never support Formby or any union bureaucrat, as they always shaft the rank and file—referring, apparently, to votes in NEC disciplinary procedures. Moreover, she felt that this was the time to discuss union disaffiliation from Labour, leaving the party to the members.
This is so far from edifying that one hopes both sides lose to teach them a lesson. The claims, made by the McDonnell-aligned Labour Representation Committee and fed by NEC sources to pro-Corbyn blog Skwawkbox, of Lansman splitting the vote are simply wrong.
Likewise, the idea that unions could, or should, split from Labour, is light years from reality. That Shawcroft’s statement was made on Facebook adds an argument for never doing politics-by-platform.
So what is at stake here? One under-reported aspect of Corbyn’s success is that it is almighty vengeance for Falkirk. The humiliation of Unite in 2013 over what turned out to be a candy floss controversy—tasty but with little substance—allowed Miliband to significantly weaken the union link. The unions held their tongue in the interests of a Labour victory. But once victory failed to materialise, there was hell to pay for the party establishment.
In Labour leadership contests, unions traditionally back the right or centre; they have never backed a candidate like Corbyn. But by 2015, they were in a desperate situation, losing members, bargaining power and political clout. The days of the corporatist establishment and the union block vote were gone. They were being treated with contempt, and the interests of their members attacked, by the leadership of the party of labour.
What’s more, they had grown closer to Corbyn, policy-wise, than any other candidate. The CWU put it very succinctly: a Corbyn win would break “the grip of the Blairites … once and for all.”