Whither the unions? What Shorten can learn from UK Labour
In the wake of the ALP’s poor result in the recent
Western Australia Senate election, The Conversation is publishing a
series of articles looking at the party’s brand, organisation and future
In a post-industrial and neoliberal era, questions of identity are
posing acute problems for political parties with ties to organised
labour all over the world. Reflecting on the Australian Labor Party’s
dismal showing in the Western Australian Senate by-election, former WA premier Geoff Gallop presciently asked of the ALP:
Is it a union-based party or is it a social democratic party?
This existential crisis about Labor and trade unions has been
ongoing, and not just in Australia. But as federal Labor leader Bill
Shorten seeks to reinvent his party, he will do well to examine the reforms his UK counterpart Ed Miliband has introduced to the Labour Party in Britain.
In Britain, the relationship between the unions and Labour has been fractious for a while. Since the 1990s, new “super-unions” have emerged. UNISON (formed in 1993) and Unite (formed in 2007) are the current big players.
In addition, there has been a new generation of left-leaning trade union leaders. The late Bob Crow, the former head of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (the RMT), was perhaps the most prominent of these. Len McCluskey, who heads Unite, has made noises about severing the union’s historic link with Labour.
However, it was Unite’s activities that prompted the latest crisis
between the unions and Labour. Unite was accused of vote-rigging in the Falkirk pre-selection, leading to further claims that McCluskey (and in turn Miliband himself) were elected with the help of “phantom” members.
In response, Miliband has led a fresh round of internal reform. At a
special conference in March, he won party backing to reform the link
with the unions.
The main reform is to move towards one-member one-vote (OMOV) for
choosing the Labour leader. Currently, the party leader is elected
through an electoral college: one-third of the vote from the unions,
one-third from the parliamentary party, and one-third from party
Significantly, Miliband has backing to reform wider membership of the
party. Trade union leaders remain under fire for exercising
disproportionate influence over Labour: not all of their members vote
Labour, but their numbers count in shaping policy and pre-selections.
Under the new rules, affiliated trade union members will have to choose
to become a supporter or member of the Labour Party.
Debate continues as to whether either Labour or the unions gain from these reforms. McCluskey and Unite have signalled
that their donations to the party will drop dramatically. However, the
number of individual union and party members could increase, bolstering
Labour’s campaigning presence. That is a crucial factor in increasing
voter turnout at elections.
These reforms build upon recent changes where Labour created a new
category of “registered supporter” to increase involvement. In addition,
Labour will move towards the greater use of primaries for
pre-selections – starting with the 2016 London mayoral elections.
For Miliband, there is a dual pressure to both reformulate the link
with the unions but also push for broader appeal. In Miliband’s words,
the aim of the reforms is to “let people back into our politics”.
However, the unions will still retain a 50% block vote at Labour’s party
conference and also retain their quota on the party’s national
Two wider issues frame this debate about Labour’s link with the
unions. Structurally, trade union density is declining in both Britain
and Australia, so there is pressure to reduce its bloc vote.
Politically, trade unions have been demonised and marginalised since
the 1980s. In Britain, it started with Conservative prime minister
Margaret Thatcher’s assault on what she called the “enemy within” – the trade unions.
The unions themselves have not always helped their cause. In the UK, the Falkirk episode is damaging. In Australia, corrupt behaviour in the Health Services Union and allegations of corrupt dealings in the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union fuel this antipathy.
As Labor historian Nick Dyrenfurth notes,
these events have helped prime minister Tony Abbott wage a political
campaign against both the unions and Labor. However, the (unfashionable)
case for unions is still needed. As federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh notes in his book on equality, unions in Australia remain fundamental in the struggle against growing economic inequality.
Cut short by his mother’s passing, Shorten has yet to deliver his speech where he was to unveil his reform agenda. He has floated the idea
of removing the requirement for party members to be trade union
members, and reducing the fee to join the party to boost membership.
Shorten also reportedly favours
reforming the way state leaders are elected, with a 50:50 vote between
the parliamentary wing and the rank and file. Reports of the contents of
the speech also suggest greater involvement for party members in the
pre-selection process. Yet it remains unclear whether he will tackle the
union bloc vote at party conferences, which is, in effect, their power
to veto policy.
While the ALP might push to create party “supporters”, views are
mixed about the growing use of primaries to pre-select candidates. Labor
senator and factional powerbroker Kim Carr, in his Letter to Generation Next book, notes the low uptake at a trial of a primary election in Kilsyth before the Victorian state election in 2010.
The lessons from the UK are complex. Ultimately Shorten might resist
Gallop’s assertion that the ALP is either labourist or social
democratic. It is, and has always been, a mixture of a number of