SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 143 - November 2010

A new Labour leader, still


ED MILIBAND’S narrow victory over his elder brother David in Labour’s leadership contest was presented in the right-wing media as the re-establishment of ‘trade union domination’ over the Labour Party and even as a ‘lurch to the left’.

This ‘analysis’ was repeated, in hopeful expectation this time, by various left-wing commentators. Seumas Milne, writing in The Guardian, hailed “the first significant setback for the party’s right wing… for a generation”. He concedes that “in reality, the new Labour leader is ‘barely pink’, let alone Red Ed, as the UNITE union leader, Tony Woodley, remarked”. Miliband has already made it clear that he only disputes ‘some cuts’ and their timing, accepting the logic of the capitalists’ demand for austerity. Nevertheless, Milne writes, his election “has begun to address the crisis of representation that has gripped mainstream politics for two decades”. (30 September) Even veteran left-winger, Tony Benn, could say, “I supported him [Ed Miliband] for leader and he’s justified my every hope”. (The Guardian, 29 September)

The transformation of Labour from a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ (a party with pro-capitalist leaders but with democratic structures that allowed the working class to fight for its interests), which created the ‘crisis of representation’ that Milne identifies, was not one act but the product of an era. So what does Ed Miliband’s victory tell us about this process? Did the union vote signify that now, once again, broad sections of the working class see Labour as ‘their party’, a vehicle whose direction they can shape? What does it mean for the possible ‘re-democratisation’ of the party’s structures, systematically destroyed as channels for representing workers’ interests in the past two decades?

The contest revealed the weakness of the organised left that remains within the Labour Party. Their preferred candidate was John McDonnell, who announced his candidature, and commitment to socialist public ownership to meet the economic crisis, at the annual conference of the PCS civil service union. But McDonnell could not get sufficient MPs to nominate him and, when David Miliband backed Diane Abbott to get her on the ballot paper – the right deciding which ‘left’ candidate was acceptable – she became the left’s standard bearer.

In the event Diane Abbott won the first preference votes of just seven MPs – herself, Jeremy Corbyn, Katy Clark, Kelvin Hopkins, Linda Riordan, Mike Wood and John McDonnell. Blairite MPs such as Phil Woolas, Jack Straw and Stephen Twigg, who followed David Miliband in nominating her, did not, of course, give her even their fifth preference.

Amongst individual members, Diane Abbott polled less than 20 votes in four out of five constituency parties, totalling 9,314 votes (7.3%). David Miliband topped this section, on 55,905 (44%). How diminished the left has become is shown by the fact that the last time Diane Abbott stood for Labour’s national executive committee – in 1997 on the left-wing Campaign Group slate – 76,772 individual party members voted for her.

In all 126,874 individual Labour Party members voted in the leadership election, out of a total membership of 177,477, with Labour publishing a constituency breakdown for the first time. This revealed significant information about Labour’s membership. Just four constituency parties, all in London, have a membership of more than 1,000 – Bethnal Green & Bow, Ealing Southall, Holborn & St Pancras, and Hornsey & Wood Green, all areas with significant black and ethnic minority populations. But over a third of constituency parties have less than 200 members. And, while membership has risen in recent months, it is still less than at the time of the 2007 deputy leadership election, when it stood at 181,008.

Diane Abbott did better in the trade unions, picking up 25,079 votes (10.5%). She topped the poll with 1,791 votes in ASLEF, the 18,000-strong train drivers’ union, and came second in TSSA, the other affiliated rail union, with 898 votes. But in eight other unions more members spoilt their ballot papers than voted for her. Also in the affiliated members’ section is Labour Students – just 117 ‘idealistic youth’ voted for Abbott.

What did the union vote in general signify? Was it, as the superficial media commentary suggested – echoed by some on the left – a re-assertion of ‘union dominance’, the beginning of a move by workers to enter and transform the Labour Party? The figures don’t bear this out.

Twelve unions are affiliated to Labour, with 2.272 million members who pay into the unions’ political funds, making them eligible to vote in the leadership election. The big unions’ leaders, in particular, made a determined effort to get out the vote. UNITE spent an estimated £750,000 on the contest including a campaign, organised by Gordon Brown’s former press secretary, Charlie Whelan, of texting, phone banking and e-mailing members, but achieved a turnout of just 10.5%. Overall, 238,618 ballot papers were returned, an 8.7% turnout. Of these, 35,239 were ‘spoilt’ (14.7%) mainly because union members refused to tick the declaration that they “support the policies and principles of the Labour Party and am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it”. Consequently, a total of 203,379 valid trade union votes were cast.

Compare these figures to the Labour Party deputy leadership election in 2007. Then 3.029 million ballot papers were issued in the affiliated members’ section (showing the fall in the number of Labour-affiliated political fund payers in the last three years) and 256,615 ballot papers were returned – more than for the 2010 leadership election! As in 2010 there was a high number of spoiled ballot papers in the affiliated members’ section – 41,010, 15.9%.

Another fact is also lost on impressionistic commentators who speak of ‘the unions’ as a homogenous block. There are actually 4.4 million trade unionists in TUC-affiliated unions (out of a total TUC membership of 6.2 million) who pay into a political fund. These are in unions not affiliated to Labour – such as the PCS, the RMT transport workers’ union, the National Union of Teachers, the Fire Brigades Union, the University and College Union etc – or, in UNISON, the public sector union, members who choose to pay into the general political fund and not the affiliated Labour Link fund. To put these figures another way, the 200,000 trade unionists who validly voted in Labour’s leadership contest represent just 4.5% of all trade unionists in Britain who make regular political donations through their unions.

The example of UNISON is instructive. The UNISON leaders have spent more time witch-hunting militant fighters in the union’s ranks than fighting the cuts, while arguing vehemently to keep the Labour link. Yet only 28,142 voted in the leadership contest, less than the 42,651 UNISON members who, three months earlier, voted for Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister, in the union’s general secretary election. How is 9,652 UNISON members voting for Ed Miliband (or 2,910 for Diane Abbott) a sign of a movement of trade unionists to ‘reclaim Labour’ for working class interests?

The reality is that even in this election the collective voice of the trade unions was dissipated. Each union’s votes were cast not in aggregate – as happened until the 1990s counter-‘reforms’ – but divided proportionally between the candidates, negating the collective decision-making basis of trade unionism. The old ‘block vote’ was invariably wielded without reference to the union’s membership – Militant, predecessor of the Socialist Party, argued for its democratisation to reflect union policy – but it really did give the unions decisive weight. Its dissipation is another indication of their emasculated position as agents of the working class in the structures of New Labour.

The transformation of Labour into New Labour was indeed the product of an era – above all, the ideological triumph of capitalism after the collapse of Stalinism and its impact on workers’ consciousness and their organisations – and a reversal of this metamorphosis, while not theoretically ruled out, could not be accomplished easily. The next period will also see era-defining events, with great upheavals in consciousness and in institutions, as the impact of the worst economic crisis for a generation unfolds. But Labour today is still a Blairite pro-capitalist party in its policy – notwithstanding Miliband’s cautious distancing from New Labour’s government record – the social composition of its members, its structures, and how it is likely to act in the events ahead.

One largely unremarked on incident at Labour’s conference reveals much. A motion to scrap Trident was submitted from Hackney North constituency but ruled out of order as ‘not contemporary’. (The Guardian, 29 September) The officer class, and their political representatives in the cabinet, it seems, can debate the merits of public spending on weapons of mass destruction, but not the working class – at least, not in the arena that used to be known as the parliament of the labour movement. The struggle for a new vehicle for independent working class representation, a new workers’ party, goes on.


Clive Heemskerk


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