Unite-d we potentially fall

Published: Jul 11 , 2013
Author: Robin Copland, Partner

As early as May this year, Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary and UK cabinet minister, warned that "a cabal at the top of the Labour national executive was trying to exert influence", and that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband "was storing up danger for himself and for a future Labour government over parliamentary selections".  The row had blown up because Unite, the largest trade union in the UK, and in a move reminiscent of the Militant Tendency's tactics in the 1970s and 80s, had quietly been infiltrating local labor constituency parties with their members by paying their membership fees en bloc.  The union had specifically targeted seats where a selection was coming up.

Falkirk, a staunch labor town in the central belt of Scotland, was one such seat.  The constituency's sitting MP is Eric Joyce.  He will not be standing for the constituency in the 2015 election after admitting assaulting four people in a House of Commons bar (you couldn't make this up!).  Rumor has it that, of the 200 or so local members of the constituency Labour party, over 100 were already Unite members!  This was too much for the mandarins in the party's high places and the constituency was placed under central control in June.  The seat is a safe labor domain and the last thing that the party wanted was Unite having too much influence on the new MP's selection.

There is another problem here though and that is the fact that Unite is the party's single biggest financial backer.  Party leaders had to weigh up the costs of negotiating (loss of control in key Labour selection seats) against the costs of deadlock with the union (potential loss of financial backing), before deciding what to do next.

Well, the decision has been taken.  On the front page of the Times newspaper on Wednesday 3 July, the headline reads, "Labour forced to step in as union takes over key seats".  It transpires that even after the Falkirk setback, Unite has continued to try to gain control of key local constituency parties with upcoming selections.  It has allegedly written to its members in the east London seat of Ilford, for example, offering to cover their first year membership costs.  The campaign is said to have increased take-up by 10%.  In response, Ed Miliband has announced that the party has wrested back control of 14 of their local constituency parties.

The leaders of Unite, as well as those of other trades unions, are not happy.  A Unite spokesman claimed that its tactic is "a valid way of increasing the involvement of working-class people in politics".  In the Independent of Wednesday 10 July, Andrew Grice writes, "Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, predicted that only 10 per cent of its members would decide to "opt in" to giving £3 a year to Labour.  Mr Miliband wants to scrap the present system under which union members have to "opt out" if they do not want the fee automatically handed to the party".

Neither is the Labour party happy - an activist in one of the union's targeted seats claims that, "this is a naked attempt to buy Labour party selections.  If this was just a general effort by Unite to recruit more members, why are they focusing recruitment in areas where there is a selection coming up?"

In that regard, it is interesting to look at the reaction of spokespeople.  In all of his public statements, Miliband has concentrated on the injustices and malpractices of what has been going on.  On the other hand, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union, has been concentrating on process and, interestingly, attempting to shift the spotlight elsewhere by flagging up, for example, Lord Sainsbury's financing of more centrist MPs.

Miliband and his advisers have taken a long hard look at things; they have weighed up the costs; and they have decided on this occasion that, rather than negotiate with the trades unions, they will pursue what they think is the right and fair policy; they will impose their will against the unions and essentially fall out with their biggest party financiers.  Some will say that the decision is foolhardy; others will point out the risks.  Miliband and his team calculate that the risk of losing control outweighs the loss of potential financial benefits and have taken their stance accordingly.

The lesson for negotiators?  Sometimes, you have to stand up for what you believe in and recognize that not everything is negotiable.  If you know your bottom line and if you have guiding principles, it becomes easier to manage your way through these difficulties.

Robin Copland


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Robin Copland, Partner
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