Unions and selections
Yesterday’s Times ran an article claiming that “Union leaders are quietly preparing to push the Labour Party to the left after the next general election by installing favoured candidates in seats around the country.”
I’ve read a lot of ill-informed nonsense about Labour’s selection processes, but this article is really quite spectacular in its ignorance.
Where to start?
· First, most active trade unionists do not sit on the left of the Labour Party. They tend because of the nature of trade union activity – representing ordinary working people and negotiating deals with employers – to be pragmatic and moderate. That means they aren’t raving uber-Blairite ideologues either – more practical people who understand reality and how to organise and win elections. The candidates backed by trade unions in Labour parliamentary selections share those characteristics.
· Those smaller unions like RMT that really are very leftwing aren’t affiliated to the Labour Party so have no influence on Labour’s selections.
· The people to the left of Labour within bigger unions (e.g. one-time SWPer Jerry Hicks in Unite) don’t have a role in their union’s input into Labour selections because that function is usually confined to union members who are also Labour Party members.
· Most trade unions haven’t been that brilliant at helping their members navigate their way to selection as Labour candidates on a systematic basis. The exceptions are the GMB in the north of England and the Amicus section of Unite. The other affiliated unions have been pretty amateurish in the support provided – though some of their individual officials or activists have got selected on their own efforts and merits.
· Unions can’t “install favoured candidates”. It is Labour Party members who pick parliamentary candidates. All unions can do is nominate where they are affiliated to a CLP – which is fairly useless unless you are also capable of picking up nominations from party branches – and train and support their favoured candidates.
· In the last two rounds of selections there’s no evidence of any great surge of union-backed selection winners. The last big union intake was 2001 when union officials like Tom Watson, Mark Tami and Kevan Jones got in. Since then the people within the old AEEU who understood how to help people get selected have been sidelined by Derek Simpson.
· The class composition of those PPCs backed by unions and those not is roughly similar. This is because if you are talented enough for your union to want to see you in Parliament then you would already have been plucked off the shopfloor and made a full-time official. Union full-timers are by any measure – pay, status, etc. – just as “middle class” as lawyers, lobbyists or full-time councillors. In fact many of them are ex-Labour Students activists who wanted to carry on working full-time in a quasi-political job when they graduated from student politics.
· Within those PPCs selected with union backing, a disproportionate number will be from white collar sections of their unions – the APEX and NULO bits of GMB, the ACTS bit of TGWU, much of the old MSF etc. I.e. those union branches that recruit lawyers, full-time councillors, officials of other unions, Labour Party staff etc. These people share exactly the same political characteristics as any other similarly active Labour Party member.
· Similarly, those people active enough in the Labour Party to seek parliamentary selection are almost always going to be active in a union too. If you are a Labour activist you are usually going to be committed to the values of trade unionism. For the Times to get excited about 75% of Labour PPCs having union backing is like getting excited because 75% of rain is wet.
· The examples picked by the Times are flawed. They cite Unison’s Lillian Greenwood as an example of union intervention in a selection but her victory, whilst she’s on the soft left, was actually a shock defeat for the hard left candidate Christine Shawcroft. They cite Chuka Umunna of Compass as a union-backed candidate but he is a middle-class lawyer who beat Steve Reed who was strongly backed by Unite/Amicus. They cite Rachel Reeves as a “on the Blairite wing of the party, with links to pressure groups such as Progress” when in fact Rachel is close to the Brown camp and has been a member of the National Political Committee of Unite/Amicus, and as such got union backing when she was selected.
· The vast majority of Labour candidates in winnable seats, whether union-backed or not, pass the “Luke Akehurst thinks they are sound” test. This suggests the PLP isn’t going to veer sharply leftwards post-election.
I declare a prejudicial interest as a member of the Unite Parliamentary Panel. Presumably based on the quality of the analysis in their article, if I get selected somewhere the Times will cite that as evidence of Derek Simpson packing the PLP with lefties.