The shared delusions of Labour and the unions

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband versus the British trade union bosses? A plague on both their empty houses.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

‘Delusional’, one leading Labour Party member called the trade unions this week. It is a word that well describes both sides in the phoney war between Labour leader Ed Miliband and the union bosses who elected him. Along with the media who treat a fall-out between these political corpses as if it was a life-and-death struggle.

Miliband kicked it off by relaunching his leadership (again) with a pledge not to end the Lib-Con coalition government’s one per cent cap on public-sector pay. The leaders of the big unions cried that this threatens not just electoral defeat but ‘the destruction of the Labour Party as constituted’, and could have a ‘profound impact’ on the links between Labour and the unions who fund it.

In response, Miliband put on his best hard-nerd act, declaring that he will not give in to ‘threats’, that he will ‘do the right thing’, and if some don’t like it, ‘that’s tough’. Former Labour cabinet minister Alan Johnson chipped in to denounce the party’s main union allies as ‘delusional’.

The portentous language might make it sound like an historic split. But this fall-out over percentage points reveals that the leaders of Labour and the trade unions still share deeper delusions.

First, they share the delusion that Miliband’s new announcement marks a big departure in Labour policy. Labour wants to dress up its acceptance of public-sector pay restraint as a bold step towards its new vision of ‘responsible capitalism’. The unions want to highlight Labour’s ‘betrayal’ to distract from their own inability to oppose the coalition’s actual imposition of a public-sector pay freeze and subsequent one per cent cap.

In fact this ‘new’ policy is merely the logical outcome of Labour’s approach since the financial crisis hit. The last New Labour government (of which Miliband was a member) itself imposed an identical one per cent limit on public-sector pay rises! Neither side can truly face the fact that Labour is just a ‘responsible’ wing of the all-party consensus behind the politics of austerity.

Second, they appear to share the delusion that this is really a struggle for the soul of the Labour Party. Miliband’s few supporters hope it will be a ‘Clause 4 moment’, marking a brave new era just as Tony Blair did by ditching the old left’s totemic clause of the party constitution. The union leaders, meanwhile, talk about a ‘Blairite coup’ to derail Labour.

In truth, Labour sold whatever soul it had long ago. The Labour Party ‘as constituted’ was destroyed years before Blair turned up to give it the last rites. It was the prior death of traditional Labourism that allowed the New Labour clique to take over the remains, not the other way round.

Since the party died, Labour leaders bereft of any alternative politics have tried to demonstrate their authority by beating the rump of the left. See Neil Kinnock with Militant in the 1980s and Blair over Clause Four in the 1990s. Now Miliband forlornly hopes to follow suit and look like a leader by picking a fight with the unions. Not so much history repeated as farce, more stage-managed theatre repeated as pantomime.

Meanwhile the union left invokes the spectre of a ‘Blairite coup’ to distract from the reality that the Labour Party itself is the problem. They rejoiced that Gordon Brown had ‘reclaimed’ Labour from the Blairites, only for Brown to turn out even worse. Then they put their man Ed in as leader to thwart his ‘Blairite’ brother David. Now Ed has shown himself more dead than red, they claim that he is the prisoner of ‘Blairism’, the man in the rubber face mask. The deluded belief in the next Labour Messiah, whoever that might be, avoids accepting that no miracle worker can raise Labourism from the tomb.

Thirdly, all sides in this row share the delusion that they are still part of a powerful labour movement that can shape the political future. In reality, both the Labour Party and the unions are empty shells, and have been for years. The noise their leaders make merely echoes in the spaces where their movement used to be. If the unions’ impotence was demonstrated by the pale ghost of a ‘General Strike’ they called last year, the Labour Party’s vacant state is illustrated by plans to mortgage off its local offices.

Fears that the current row could rupture the historic links and cut union funding for Labour miss the point. The traditional relationship is already over, since neither the party nor the trade union movement is what it was. Where once the union leaders formed the Labour Party to be an expression in Westminster of their real power in the world outside, now both cling together out of weakness. The funding that was once merely the organisational expression of their organic relationship is now all that remains to keep them together. A cut would certainly be a big problem for Labour, largely because it would expose the absence of any other loyal source of financial and political support.

Could the deluded pair finally be prised apart? The flimsy and shallow character of these institutions today, none of which has deep roots in a constituency any more, means things could get out of control if their leaders take personal umbrage. It seems more likely that their shared undying delusions about a Labour revival tomorrow will keep them going today.

Which brings us to the final delusion, peddled by the small but influential band of Labour groupies in the media: that all of this really matters because, in face of all the evidence, the Labour Party remains the only possible political alternative. These people seek to spread the illusion that the next Labour leader will always be The One – even singing the praises of useless Ed until the next one comes along.

When there was a vibrant left in Britain, the delusions about Labour acted as a dead weight on the working-class movement. Now that there is none, the remnants of the deluded pro-Labour lobby continue to confuse matters and constrict political debate when the need for alternatives has never been more pressing. The absurd idea that we still need ‘the Labour Party as constituted’, shared by all sides in the battle over one per cent, is surely the most damaging and dangerous delusion of all.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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