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He who pays the piper doesn't always call the tune

The unseemly row between the Unite trade union and Labour over the selection of a parliamentary candidate could bring to a head the increasingly frosty relationship between the party and its single biggest funder.

Unite contributes around a quarter of Labour’s funds but is getting precious little return on capital invested. Although Unite was a key financier and organiser of Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign after the 2010 election defeat, its influence has, if anything, diminished since.

Miliband has backed the ConDems’ public sector pay freeze, insisted that Labour councils carry out austerity-driven cuts, refused to back strike action over pensions and declined to oppose a raft of government anti-union policies. Now Labour is committed to the coalition’s 2015-16 spending cuts as well.

Not much for Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to cheer about there!

So the union has turned its attention to the constituency parties in a bid to regain some clout. The Falkirk by-election in Scotland led to a massive recruitment campaign by Unite in an attempt to get their preferred choice, Karie Murphy, adopted as the candidate.

But Unite’s organisers got a little too enthusiastic, it appears, and the whole selection process was halted by Labour headquarters as a result of alleged malpractice in the selection process. Clearly, the finger was pointed at Unite. The constituency party is now under “special measures”, that is under the control of HQ.

This is not what McCluskey anticipated. He surely hoped that his close friend Tom Watson, former hatchet man for Gordon Brown and now Labour’s campaign co-ordinator under Miliband, would get it sorted and land Murphy the relatively safe seat.

So what next for McCluskey and Unite? A couple of weeks ago, McCluskey threatened to make Britain “ungovernable” through strikes and civil disobedience in response to the ConDems’ draconian attacks on jobs, welfare, the NHS and services carried out in the name of austerity.

Miliband must be appalled, although it has to be said McCluskey’s bark is, so far, worse than his bite. Labour is desperately trying to distance itself from Tory accusations that the unions call the party’s tune (were that true!). Labour wants a period of social peace before the general election scheduled for 2015.

Enter Kim Howells, former Blairite minister who was also an official in the mineworkers’ union during their 1985-6 strike for jobs. At that time, Howells was a member of the Communist Party and encouraged a return to work against the policy of the national leadership of the NUM. Not long after, surprise surprise, he was a Labour MP.

Howells over the weekend described the unions as an “interest group” and said the whole “reputation of the Labour Party” was at stake over the Falkirk row. He told the BBC that it was "absolutely crazy" to let unions pay the party membership fees of their members. Howells is stirring the row quite deliberately.

In the end, however, would it matter if Unite got one of their own into parliament? Not really. Labour from its formation has been wedded to capitalism and to directing the trade unions to seeking redress through parliament. For guidance on this issue, you can do worse than look to Ralph Miliband, the father of the present leader.

In 1960, he published his book Parliamentary Socialism, which is a study “in the politics of Labour” from its beginning right through to the post-war period. He writes:

The Labour Party has not only been a parliamentary party; it has been a party deeply imbued by parliamentarism. And in this respect, there is no distinction to be made between Labour’s political and its industrial leaders. Both have been equally determined that the Labour Party should not stray from the narrow path of parliamentary politics.

Now, of course, even parliamentarism has run its course. Corporate-driven globalisation has seen to that. We have a corporatocracy in all but name. That’s why Ed Miliband has reduced Labour to the party of “responsible capitalism”.

So Brother McCluskey, he who pays the piper does not always call the tune. Over to you.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
2 July 2013

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