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Unite cuts funding to Labour: what should trade unions do?

The executive of Unite the Union voted to cut by 10% the money it gives to the Labour Party. In one way, it is a significant step and a warning shot by one of the country’s biggest unions which was among the biggest supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It shows that, as part of the shift to the right of Labour under Keir Starmer, the question of the union link will re-emerge as an issue and it has done so quickly.

Prior to Corbyn’s initial victory as leader in 2015, many Labour-affiliated unions were coming under pressure to disaffiliate and support the setting up of a new political party for the working class. This included motions going to Unite conference in 2015 itself, but the anger of members felt in handing over money to a party which was sacking them in local government, publicly criticising them for taking strike action and providing no alternative to the Tories’ austerity agenda was put on hold as Len McCluskey was able to point to the possibility of Corbyn winning in the leadership election as a way to solve this crisis. 

McCluskey, as well as other trade union leaders, have spent the last 5 years avoiding the road of generalised workers’ struggle against the Tories as they championed a ‘wait for Corbyn’ strategy. This unfortunately went alongside a strategy of not fighting for democracy inside the party, such as mandatory reselection of MPs, which was a big factor in leaving the right-wing in a position to mount a counter revolution when Corbyn lost the election. McCluskey even went so far as using Unite votes at the 2018 Labour conference to block open selection of MPs. 

Now that the Corbyn project has come to an end, and Starmer is doing everything he can to reverse any gains made by the left, questions of the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party will inevitably be raised again, and in a more serious way.  

However, it is a small and mainly tokenistic step by Unite and has basically been shrugged off by Starmer. In fact, Starmer has launched a drive to get more donations from ‘rich donors’ to “reduce the Labour Party’s reliance on trade unions”. Unite has given £7m to Labour since the start of 2019 so even with a 10% cut, there will still be a huge sum of money handed over. And for what? Assistant General Secretary of Unite, Howard Beckett, sits on the Labour NEC and whilst he has made some mild criticisms of Starmer, he is unfortunately not using that position to mobilise the million-strong Unite membership to push for real opposition to the rightward shift of the party. When announcing the decision to cut the amount of money donated, McCluskey was clear that there were no moves to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and said, “The Labour Party is our party”.

The issue which prompted the review into the funding wasn’t Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey nor the complete lack of opposition to the government’s handling of the Covid crisis, but the decision to pay damages to the so-called “whistle-blowers” on alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in the BBC Panorama documentary which was aired during Corbyn’s leadership. We have commented elsewhere on the issue of anti-Semitism, and it is true that Starmer’s decision to pay over £600,000 in damages was a provocative continuation of the smears of Corbyn, there are other majorpolitical issues at stake in the Labour Party.

Labour’s trend to the right

There are many examples which can be given, but the important thing is that they all add up into a trend of the Labour Party moving, substantially, further away from being a party that represents trade unionists. Labour overtook the Tories in the opinion polls for the first time in over a year in August, but now both parties are at around 40% in most polls. 33% of people would prefer Starmer as Prime Minister, compared to 32% for Boris Johnson. Some may view this as success but it’s worth remembering that in the 2017 general election, despite a constant campaign of sabotage by the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s manifesto won 40% of the vote. Starmer is facing a government which is widely considered to be failing at dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, as well as Brexit, and so to be equal in the polls is not a big achievement!

We only need to look at the last two weeks to see Starmer’s style of ‘opposition’. On the Overseas Operation Bill, which essentially decriminalises torture by British armed forces abroad, Labour MPs were told to abstain. 19 voted against and three of them, as shadow cabinet members, were sacked. Then Starmer took the same tack on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill, which allows undercover MI5 agents and police officers to commit crimes while undercover. This is particularly noteworthy given the prominence of infiltration cases in left wing activist groups and trade unions, including the scandals of undercover police officers entering relationships with people they were spying on and blacklisting of trade union activists. 20 MPs voted against. Why abstain on these bills? Ostensibly, Starmer has claimed that this is because Labour does not yet have a majority, so it will be pointless voting down government legislation that will pass regardless. In reality, it is because of the political message that Starmer is trying to send.

Firstly, as he said when he was first elected leader, he won’t ‘oppose for the sake of opposition’. He wants to show this by basically standing by, quietly supporting everything the government does whilst asking one or two questions, or making small amendments, in the hope that he will be seen as ‘reasonable’ by both the electorate and the ruling class. Secondly, there is a false belief that to win back working-class votes, particularly in northern towns, the Labour Party will need to lean rightwards on “law and order”, patriotism and “family values”. This stems from a complete misunderstanding of what led to the Leave vote in the EU referendum and reflects the deep divide between the Labour Party and the wider working class. Decades of betrayal by the Labour Party is the main reason that working class people have turned away from it. Corbyn was able to make steps towards reversing this but not sufficiently and Starmer will not win meaningful support on this basis.

The approach of the left

The tactic of the left inside the Labour Party, including in the Unite leadership, flows from the mistaken approach they had during Corbyn’s leadership. Former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has described Starmer as a socialist and said he had got it “exactly right” in his response to the government’s handling of Covid. Former Corbyn advisor Andrew Fisher said: “The left has got to build an alliance with that centre-left of the party that voted for Starmer – and a lot of Corbyn supporters who voted for Starmer – to defend that kind of programme. That’s the sort of constructive role we’ve got to play.”

How far will the left go in this ‘constructive alliance’ whilst Starmer is moving swiftly away from the Corbyn-type 10 campaign pledges, using Covid as an excuse for abandoning support for free education and other policies? Whilst even the Tory chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, has said that universities should consider discounts for students who are not being taught face-to-face, Starmer has said he won’t support student demands for tuition fee and rent refunds, emphasising that universities are in financial trouble. He has explicitly said “Four years from an election, we’re not setting out policy”. Will the handful of left MPs just rebel every time Starmer whips them to vote in favour of reactionary government policy whilst dutifully supporting their leader?

McCluskey has spoken about a supposed “major gathering of the left” which is due to take place to discuss its strategy in the Labour Party. This could be a useful discussion, but only if it learns the lessons of the last five years and makes plans for mass campaigning and mobilisations for socialist policies in the Labour Party. They are holding out for the NEC elections next month, in which the Momentum and Campaign for Labour Party Democracy-backed Grassroots Voice slate got 42% of the nominations – one of their candidates is former MP and Corbyn supporter Laura Pidcock who got the highest number of nominations of any candidate. In order to win the seats, there will need to be a big and public campaign on their programmatic demands and a plan for how to use any seats they win as levers on fighting within the party for democratic changes such as open selection. What will Unite receive in return for its £6m+ donation this year? It will need to go beyond just “holding Starmer to account”.

Where next?

In a recent YouGov Poll, 40% of people said they thought Labour were doing a bad job of holding the government to account. As the crisis in the Tory Party intensifies, there will be increasing pressure on the Starmer leadership to step up as the safe pair of hands for capitalism. But this will throw the Labour Party further into conflict with the working class, particularly those organised in the trade unions. Next to the bumbling mess which is Boris Johnson, Starmer can win support as a ‘statesman’ and a more coherent alternative, but this is not the same as the Labour Party rebuilding itself amongst the mass of workers. 

In all affiliated trade unions there should be discussion on what kind of fight-back is needed to defend workers against the negative impacts of Covid (unsafe working conditions, job losses, pay cuts etc) and any anti-worker trade deal as part of a Tory Brexit. This should then be organised independently and on a mass scale by the trade unions. This process should involve reaching out to those workers and young people involved in struggles outside of the workplace as well, such as Black Lives Matter and the climate strikes. Unite should be clear that this step does not represent a step back from political organising and that instead the money will be used to organise the mass resistance to the Tories that is so vitally needed. 

If the Labour Party under Starmer is not willing to actively support this struggle, which is the most likely situation, then there will be a necessity for the trade unions to take action on the question of political representation. This should immediately include withdrawing funding and backing from Labour MPs that do not support union policy. Inherent in the situation is the possibility of disaffiliation from the Labour Party and unions instead putting their resources and political energies into the big working class struggles to come, which will highlight the need for building a genuine workers’ party, with a real democratic voice for the trade unions and their members.

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