Unite, Labour and the general election: the Emperor’s new clothes (a response to UUL and the SP)

By Elaine Jones, Unite branch 6/522 Equalities Officer, Unite United Left member and SCLV supporter in Merseyside

Some prominent members of the United Left in Unite have recently circulated an “Open letter to Socialist Party supporters in Unite” critical of their decision to stand (through TUSC) against Labour in the forthcoming general election.

In the statement it is pointed out that it is Unite’s policy to support Labour and develop the left in the Labour Party. It is also rightly argued that, by deciding to stand in 100 marginal seats, the Socialist Party is showing that they think that there is no difference between a Tory and a Labour Government and that they are demonstrating a cavalier attitude to the outcome of the election. TUSC have of course in the past, and presumably in this election too, been stopped from standing candidates against members of the RMT parliamentary group because the RMT vetoed them, but when it comes to standing in marginal seats there is no such restraint.

Such an approach not only shows that they don’t consider or think important the difference for the labour movement between a Tory and a Labour Government, but it also takes away from the positive case that can be argued in favour of standing socialist candidates which is, that given the predominantly right wing platform that Labour is standing on, it could be useful to stand in some constituencies to make the case for socialism.

However that isn’t the project the Socialist Party has set itself with TUSC. It is instead, as the UL statement says, attempting to portray itself as a mass working class alternative to Labour. In the statement a good case for opposing the Tories and fighting within the Labour Party to build a left is made; it is argued that the trade unions are the mass organisations of the working class and that is why their positions should be treated seriously and it is signed by some people who have fought to implement Unite’s political strategy.

HOWEVER (it’s a big however)

If we look honestly at Unite’s role in the Labour Party and the message its actions send to the Labour right, the broader trade union movement and our members, then there is more to say. Unfortunately things are not quite what they seem and I am reminded of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.

Often in Unite we have the performance and show, the Emperor in his new clothes. McCluskey making lefty sounding speeches at rallies and conferences, the denunciation of austerity, clever speeches and statements with socialist quotes and condemnation of the Labour right but then, in practice, when it’s possible to actually do something and make a difference, there’s nothing (or worse). The Emperor is in fact naked!

For example when the Collins review proposals, which were an attack on democracy and collective trade union representation within the Labour party, were proposed at a special conference in March 2014 we get the “To those who want to push us out… this is our party” speech and then of course a vote … for Collins!

Similarly, despite fine speeches, and policy, against austerity, Unite voted against an amendment at the national policy forum last July which read: “We recognise that the cost of living crisis is inextricably linked to government’s self-defeating austerity agenda. That is why we will introduce an emergency budget in 2015 to reject Tory spending plans for 2015-16 and beyond and set out how we will pursue a policy of investment for jobs and growth.”

And similarly, every year at Labour Party conference we have the same combination of fine words and no action. When Unite has the chance to make a difference on what policies are discussed nothing of any substance is submitted. Even though the unions still dominate the organising committees of the conference motions are frequently ruled out (for example last year a motion on the NHS which was just as “contemporary” as any others submitted was ruled out by a committee with a majority from Unite, GMB and Unison). And then, once we are all at the conference, even calling for the Unite delegation to vote for a minor (not remotely left wing) rule change is viewed as too extreme!

More generally in this election Unite is not helping to build the Labour left. It is not raising any demands on Labour, even to the extent that Unison (under the leadership of Dave Prentis!) did in 2010, or the rail unions are doing now with “Action for Rail”; it is not making an effort to mobilise ordinary Unite members with a combination of such demands and the call to kick out the Tories and fend off UKIP. In fact Unite is doing little more than giving money to Labour and sending teams of people (often officials) to work in particular constituencies.

All of this stops, blocks and puts back the development of a Labour left. It leaves activists who are serious about such a project marginalised and demoralised and gives more credence to those who want to leave the Labour Party. As well as it resulting in a failure to build the Labour left and leading to a drift out of the Labour Party, the lack of any visible trade union based political alternative to the Tory’s and the Labour leadership also has another consequence: that is the creation of a political vacuum which is filled by nationalism (of all shades) and populism.

In the forth coming general election calling for a Labour vote is necessary because, as argued in the Open letter, the election of another Tory led government will have serious consequences for our movement and class. However, if the rhetoric of the trade unions isn’t backed up by action, then it will not be enough to stop the turn away from Labour and the growth of the poisonous forces of the nationalists and populists.

It would be good to know what the authors of the Open letter think about all this.

What is needed is pro-working class demands and socialist ideas to be raised and fought for within the Labour party, combined with industrial action and protests to build a movement that can actually begin to win some positive demands.