It is therefore a truism that the links between the Trade Union movement and the Labour movement run deep. There are strong trends in both Unionism and Labourism (for want of a better adjective) which are deeply entrenched. Both movements are essentially romantic in nature, and tend to harken back to halcyon days of yore (in the case of the Labour movement) or to the days of widespread exploitation of the working man (in the case of the Union movement).
In recent decades, most memorably with the abolition of ‘Clause IV’ of the Labour Party constitution as Tony Blair attempted to make the Party more palatable to the growing aspirant middle-classes, these links have been weakened. However, there is still a strong link between the party, and Trade Union members. Notably, each member of a Trade Union currently needs to opt out of paying an automatic affiliation fee to the Labour Party.
Ed Miliband has taken a brave step in stating that he wants to see this situation reversed – so that each Trade Union member has to make a conscious decision to opt in to affiliating with his Party. This is a step which has been compared unfavourably with his predecessor-but-one as party leader, who was seen to be proactive in moving away from the Labour Party’s commitment to nationalised industries. However, this is too simplistic an analysis.
Blair’s decision to take on the organised might of the Unions was a calculated risk. It was still a risk however, as the power that the Unions wielded was then considerable. In achieving the abolition of Clause IV, Blair was able to prove to the swing voters that the Labour Party was unlikely to be financially imprudent. That, along with a commitment to match the spending plans of the Conservative government under John Major, was instrumental in winning ‘New Labour’ power in 1997. But although there was a risk to Blair that he may have been overthrown by an internal, Union-led putsch, he was being blown along his course by a fair, following wind.
In much the same way, the current Labour leader is merely tapping into a trend of greater community activism which already exists. Yes, it is possible to point to the selection of a Labour Party candidate in Falkirk as being a major motivator for the timing of the announcement. However, if Blair was assisted by a strong following wind then Miliband is assisted by a favourable current. It’s not as visible as the trend towards private ownership, but the rise of community organisation and individual activism is taking hold within the Labour movement through organisations such as Movement for Change. In this case, therefore, the trend is less visible but no less present. Rather than following the wind, they are following a current.
Miliband has had a fairly torrid time since his being chosen to lead the Labour Party. He has been pilloried as being ‘Red Ed’ – only able to win the leadership election through the support of Unions. He has been accused of lacking personality, of being too consensual, and of lacking the killer instinct of Blair. These criticisms are, in the most part, unwarranted. Granted he was less popular then his elder brother with party membership during the election campaign. However, his ability to mobilise support from a variety of sources demonstrated his ability in the art of ‘realpolitik’. Furthermore, he has shown his steel in standing against his elder brother and winning the leadership of the party against the odds.
As for the final of these criticisms, that he is too consensual, this is possibly the easiest to understand. Miliband took control of a divided Labour Party, in the aftermath of the much-publicised Blair/Brown conflict. The Economist, normally right-leaning and highly critical of woolly left-wingers, believes that Miliband has opportunity to effect real change but goes on to say that he has no ‘tribal backing’. Although the criticism is that he is being too consensual, this was undoubtedly necessary after fallout from divisive Blair/Brown situation.
Does this mean that Miliband’s strategy is to acquiesce to the agenda that is being set by the governing coalition? To an extent, the answer to this question has to be “yes”. Certainly, Labour has not opposed many of the government’s policies from a position of strength. It has instead adopted an approach which is to pick specific government policies in isolation and to force ‘U-Turns’. Remember the ‘Granny Tax’, the ‘Pasty Tax’, and most recently the ‘Bedroom Tax’ campaigns. However, whilst the Labour Party does not have an alternative policy agenda of their own, they are held hostage to fortune by the coalition. Labour are awful at promoting the good work that was done in social investment between 1997 and 2010. This is why the concept of austerity has been set – because the Conservatives, in particular, have adeptly controlled the media agenda.
The next twenty two months are going to be fascinating. Assuming that the Fixed Term Parliament Act is not repealed, the next General Election will not be until the first week of May 2015. By this time, the Labour Party will need to have developed alternative policies of its own rather than sniping at the Coalition policy agenda from the sidelines.
This policy agenda will be developed using the broad church of activist organisations such as the Labour Supporters Network, and the Movement for Change. The latter is an organisation set up by the elder Miliband during his bid for the leadership of the Labour Party, and it seems somewhat poetic that it is now being used by his younger brother to engage with more of the ‘grass roots’.
So, possibly, we will see the ‘#betterpolitics’ that the Labour Party publicity machine has been tweeting about after all, although they should be wary of social media such as Twitter taking precedence over personal ‘face to face’ contact. New media is growing area, and is a fine way of reaching out to the often disaffected and disenfranchised younger generations. However it has shortcomings. For example, it is not possible to become a Registered Labour Supporter if you don’t have an email account and access to a regular internet connection. This is potentially disenfranchising to the most vulnerable, who could well benefit most from inclusion and engagement with the political process. For this reason personal relationships need to remain paramount.