Ed Miliband’s decision to rush through the end of trade union bloc affiliation to the Labour Party at a special conference next spring has all the symbolism of Tony Blair’s ’Clause Four moment’ in 1995.
That was when Blair organised a special conference to abolish Labour’s historic commitment, in Clause Four, Part 1V of the party’s rules, to "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange".
It is not only symbolism that is involved in Miliband’s move, however, but the content that is also the same; to continue (in fact, to complete) the process of transforming Labour into just another capitalist party.
Clause Four summarised the collective interest of the working class in fighting for a new form of society, socialism, in opposition to the capitalist market system.
Trade union affiliation (when democratically exercised by union members) enshrined the ability of the working class through the unions to control its political representatives.
It was these characteristics that defined the Labour Party in the past as a ’capitalist workers party’, with a leadership at the top which invariably reflected the policy of the capitalist class, but with a socialistic ideological basis to the party and a structure through which workers could move to challenge the leadership and threaten the capitalists’ interests.
Details have yet to emerge of the proposals being considered by a review led by former Labour Party general secretary Lord Collins to go to the special conference.
But the central idea, to replace bloc affiliation in favour of trade unionists joining Labour as ’affiliated’ or ’associate’ individual members, would finally end the remnants of the affiliated trade unions’ collective political voice within the party.
The Falkirk affair, the ostensible reason for the changes, shows how far in fact this process has already gone.
What happened in Falkirk – with Unite officials recruiting union members to become individual members of the constituency Labour Party (CLP) – actually had no connection with the union’s affiliated status.
In the past trade union branches would send delegates to constituency Labour parties (CLPs), alongside ward party representatives, to select a parliamentary candidate.
This was the way, for example, that the Militant MPs Dave Nellist (now chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – TUSC), and the late Terry Fields and Pat Wall, won their selection as Labour candidates in the 1980s.
That democratic structure, which meant that healthy mass participation Labour parties like in Liverpool and Coventry were effectively local ’parliaments of the labour movement’, was overturned in 1994 by the introduction of ’one member, one vote’ (OMOV) rules for selecting candidates.
Those changes, promoting passive membership over representative democracy (some OMOV selections have been decided by postal ballots, with prospective candidates having no chance to speak to members) were accurately described by John Prescott as being more important in changing Labour than the abolition of Clause Four.
In Falkirk Unite members were being recruited as individuals to take part in a future OMOV ballot with no certainty, of course, as to how they would vote.
But even that pale reflection of ’union influence’ has been seized by Miliband as a chance to complete the job of effectively ending the union link.
The Socialist Party believes that the Labour Party has already been qualitatively transformed from its roots as a capitalist workers’ party, which is why we argue that a new workers’ party is necessary.
We support TUSC as a precursor of a new mass party that could unite together trade unionists, unorganised workers, socialists, young people, oppressed groups and community campaigners, as the only way to ensure that the working class today can achieve an independent political voice.
But social formations can retain many of their old forms – even as their new content predominates – and residues of the past position of the unions in the Labour Party still remain.
Affiliated unions have 30 votes out of 144 in Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) for example (which will now be examined by the Collins review), and are directly represented on the national executive committee.
And while the affiliated unions’ 49% share of conference votes has been reduced from the 90% share in the past, if they rejected Miliband’s proposals, which they should, it is not guaranteed that he could push them through the special conference.
But unfortunately the Unite leadership in particular are not signalling opposition to Miliband’s plans and in doing so are using arguments that are undermining the very idea of independent working class political representation.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, for example, has argued that he could not go "in front of TV cameras and pretend to speak on behalf of a million Unite members" since many of them do not vote Labour.
That’s true, they don’t; but when Len speaks he is representing Unite’s democratically agreed policies against cuts and privatisation, for repeal of the anti-union laws etc.
In negotiating with employers, union representatives speak for the decision reached collectively by the union members, even though a minority may not have supported the finally agreed position. So why shouldn’t the union be represented collectively in the political arena too?
Len McCluskey has also suggested that Unite could actually have more power by making its donations conditional on Labour’s support for specific policies.
But how would this be different to the position of the US unions, reduced to being just another lobbying group alongside corporate donors, giving millions of dollars to buy some alleged ’friends of labour’ in the Democratic Party? Or for that matter the 19th century ’Lib-Labism’ of unions before the formation of the Labour Party, seeking support for particular policies and parliamentary representatives within a capitalist party?
Not the least danger of such an approach is that it reinforces the idea that the attacks of capitalism on workers’ living conditions, jobs etc could be met by a few policy changes or reforms rather than an alternative programme for government – which requires an alternative party.
Ultimately the only effective control over workers’ political representatives is that exercised by workers’ organisations through their collective decision-making structures.
In Britain today that means the trade unions drawing the lessons of Miliband’s ’Clause Four moment’ and taking the necessary steps to set up a new workers’ party.