By Angela Haggerty
The distance between Labour and the Unite union showed no signs of narrowing on Wednesday after Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey claimed relations were now “at a turning point”.
Speaking to activists at a union meeting, Mr McCluskey said ties between Unite and Labour had been under strain since the creation of New Labour in the 1990s and members had for a long time felt that Labour welcomed their money and resources but not their policy input.
“It is clear we are at a turning point in the historic relationship Unite and its predecessor unions have had with the Labour Party,” said Mr McCluskey. “This will have come as a surprise to many of you – although no-one will be shocked by the knowledge that strains in the Labour-union link have been building up for years, at least since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s.
“To re-run the experience of the last generation on this issue – the party leader says something, the unions reject it and have no positive proposals of their own, the first plan goes through anyway and we look like not just losers, but conservative losers.
“We have to be interested in outcomes, not processes. Why dig in behind a status quo that has not worked for us?”
Labour and Unite have been at loggerheads since the controversy around the selection of a party candidate to stand for election in Falkirk in 2015, erupted in June. Labour declared that a sudden rise in party members from Unite in the constituency was “suspicious” and the national party took over the process.
Labour subsequently banned anyone from being selected if they’d joined the constituency after the date current MP Eric Joyce announced he would not stand for re-election amid fears the union was attempting to influence the process.
Unite responded furiously to the allegations of attempted vote-rigging – even threatening legal action – and Labour’s election coordinator, Tom Watson, resigned over the fiasco.
The Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, was criticised for her silence on events after senior members of the Scottish branch of the party appeared to be left mere bystanders as events unfolded.
Under Mr Miliband’s new plans, the current system of automatic party affiliation for new members alongside fees paid to the party would be replaced by an opt-in system. GMB leader Paul Kenny claimed the move could cost Labour more than 500,000 members and a substantial part of the party’s income, while the Communication Workers Union General Secretary, Billy Hayes, vowed to fight Mr Miliband’s proposals.
However, Mr McCluskey backed the plans in a surprise move, saying the Labour party’s “special relationship” with the unions had failed to have any real influence on the big issues facing the country within the last 10 years, including the UK invasion of Iraq under Tony Blair’s government and the banking crisis.
“So don’t let anyone say that the status quo is worth defending,” he continued. “And don’t let’s be dishonest with ourselves. Before Falkirk, before Ed’s announcement, there were plenty of people in this room today saying, absolutely rightly, that the relationship with Labour had to change.”
Mr McCluskey added that the changes would mean the union’s members would only be in support of a Labour party that they believed would truly make a difference instead of one which was embracing austerity and had become a “pinkish shadow” of the present coalition government.
Unite is the Labour party’s biggest union funder, providing a £3 annual fee from one million members every year.