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Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Trade Unions are Bad for the Labour Party Leadership Contest

Trade unions are bad for the Labour party as they could make them unelectable; they are bad for society as they are unfair on the unemployed. Labour should reduce the financial and electoral influence that trade unions have over the party. David Miliband is the man to do this.

Voting for the Labour leadership race began on September 1st. Those eligible to vote include Labour MPs and MEPs, party members and also members of affiliated associations, such as socialist societies and trade unions.

Out of the five contestants, the race seems to be between the two Miliband brothers: David (right), the more centrist and Blairite older brother, and Ed (left), the younger and more leftist brother, who has the support of the trade unions.

All five Labour leadership candidates have faced a difficult decision. In order to win the Labour party leadership contest, they need to advocate relatively leftist policies - given that leftist trade unions not only make up a sizeable proportion of their electorate, but also provide the party with a significant amount of funding. However, in order to win nationally, and defeat the Tories in the next election, they need to be more centerist in order to appeal to 'middle England'.
Ed Miliband, the more leftist of the two brothers, has claimed Labour should "reach out more to trade unions". His appeal to trade unionists is a large factor behind the fact that he seems to have beaten Ed Balls to the position of David Miliband's main contender in the leadership race. The younger Miliband brother's support among some trade unions is so strong that the GMB union - which donated almost £1.5m to the Labour party in the first half of 2010 - have threatened to stop providing the party with financial support if Ed does not win the leadership race. Unison, the Labour party's largest supporter, have also issued a threat to David Miliband: They say they will no longer support the party if David wins and continues a New Labour agenda of privatization and 'union bashing'.

Trade unions - through a combination of their electoral size and because of their campaign financing - are having a definite influence on the Labour leadership elections. I believe, however, that this influence is neither good for the Labour party nor for society. Labour's links with trade unions - as in 1997 under Tony Blair - need to be re-severed.

During the 1980s, trade unions effectively made the Labour party unelectable as they dragged the party to the left. There is a danger that this could happen again. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, as we have in the UK, it tends to be the politicians that moderate themselves towards a more centrist policy position that get elected – see political scientist Anthony’s Downs Median Voter Theorem for a more theoretical discussion of this. If trade unions try to force the Labour party to the left, through advocating nationalization, a larger state and an anti-big-business mentality, then Labour could be permanently in opposition. Important Labour figures such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson seem to have offered their implicit support to David over Ed Miliband because of this.

Apart from being dangerous to the Labour party, trade unions are also bad for society at large. Far from being the flag bearers of socialism and fairness that they seem to aspire to be, they in fact pose a great threat to one of the worst-off groups in society: the unemployed. Giving trade unions and workers more power could lead to higher wage prices, an inflexible labour market and a disincentive for firms to hire more staff - in essence: higher unemployment. True fairness requires those who are worst-off - the unemployed - be given the chance to better in life, a chance to escape poverty and a chance to find a job. Trade unions don't do this.

All Labour party supporters - whether centrist, socialist, or liberal - should oppose higher levels of trade union involvement in the economy and in the leadership contest for the sake of both the party's electoral success and also for the sake of fairness. David Miliband is the man to deliver both of these things. David's stated policy priorities include tackling inequality and returning to full employment, which, I believe, should be the true priorities of a centre-left party which wants to build a just and fair society. He intends to bring such a society about through creating thousands of new "green" jobs, being paid for through a mansion tax and a banker's bonus tax; ensuring that women are given equal pay; and ensuring that the education gap is closed between the rich and the poor. These seem like they could be sensible policies for a centre-left party that values social equality. They are moderate enough to encourage economic growth, keep firms happy and get the party elected; radical enough to make a real start in tackling umemployment, inequality and social immobility. This blogger believes David Miliband is the only hope for an electable and fair Labour party which can distance itself from the trade unions.

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