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.”
Unite was central to Corbyn’s success. As the party’s biggest donor, it was the first union to back Corbyn. They contributed over a hundred thousand pounds to the campaign and encouraged tens of thousands of their members to affiliate to Labour. Over half of the affiliated supporters in 2015 were from Unite.
Having been so pivotal to victory, Unite gained commensurate influence. Karie Murphy, the McCluskey ally who was forced to stand down as Labour candidate during the Falkirk fiasco, now runs Corbyn’s office. Richard Leonard would probably not be Scottish Labour leader without Unite’s backing. More recently, Andrew Murray, another Unite official, gained a role in the leadership office. Formby would place another high-ranking Unite official in a pivotal role. Even the most bitter Blairites must admire the will-to-power here.
If, as Stephen Bush suggests, trade unionists are worried about the extent of Unite’s influence, those rooted in Bennite traditions of constituency activism might also worry. Lansman’s allies suggest that Formby’s candidacy was orchestrated by a command-and-control operation spearheaded by Murphy. He therefore wanted to disrupt a “done deal.”
Given Lansman’s role in the Momentum coup, his claim to defend pluralism and grassroots creativity against the cautious, top-down operations of the heavyweights, invites cynicism.
Yet, beyond Momentum, Lansman has generally supported extending party democracy, and probably believes what he is saying about democratising the selection of the general secretary rather than, as he has complained, it being effectively nominated by the major unions.
And Lansman is perfectly entitled to apply for the role of general secretary, and even to propose that it be elected. The union bureaucracy is hardly the 90 per cent block-vote wielding part of the party establishment it once was, but there is a legitimate argument for reforming the union link in a democratic way. The siege mentality of the Labour left, which treats debate as a Trojan horse for political reaction, is more damaging than anything Lansman has said thus far.
From the cheap seats, however, the campaign looks Quixotic. Being politically indistinguishable from Formby, Lansman’s unique selling point is simply that he’s not Unite. There may be enough anti-Unite sentiment on the NEC and in other unions to get him elected, but victory on such basis wouldn’t be constructive. Nor would it, of itself, advance any democratic agenda.
Given the right-wing animus against Unite, which has been a steadfast ally of Corbyn, and the history of attacks on trade unionism within Labour, these issues need tactful handling. It’s difficult to see how a campaign, surrounded by anonymous briefings and coded social media posts, achieves that.