A lot of sound and fury has been generated recently about the recent selection of a Labour candidate in Falkirk, involving accusations that the Unite union has behaved improperly and has exercised unwarranted influence over the process. The Labour Party has announced that it will take the matter up with the police. The issue has been escalated by other political parties and the media – and, it seems, by some in the Labour Party – into a bigger question of whether the Trade Union movement’s large financial support for Labour is right and proper.
The crude politics are obvious. The Conservative Party – like the Liberal Democrats – has a huge vested interest in breaking the Trade Union – Labour link, because it is obviously goes to the heart of Labour’s financial and organisational strength and vitality. It does not matter that those parties themselves rely so heavily on corporate finance, and that, for example, both parties are heavily bankrolled by private healthcare providers who stand to generate huge profits from the dismemberment of the NHS. Labour “modernisers” see the unions as a negative influence in the Labour Party. More significantly in a political system that is so firmly aligned around a market model of politics and economics, the prevailing ideology is profoundly anti-union; Unions are not organisations that organise to protect their members, but which interfere in the smooth running of a modern efficient economy. And one should not forget that, behind much of the rhetoric, there is a simple revulsion among many in our political elite – and not just on the nominal Right – that cleaners, call-centre workers and refuse workers should have a strong collective voice. Class still matters in Britain, and in a country in which mainstream politics is conducted largely by a financial and educational elite through both formal and informal networks the anti-union rhetoric is symptomatic of a much deeper democratic failing.
All of this demonstrates why the idea of Trade Union political funding is a hugely important bulwark of democracy. Without it, the British political system would entirely be in the hands of corporate finance and corporate influence. And it is, in theory at least, democratically-controlled; with the guaranteed right to opt out and democratic structures to control the funding. It’s possible to argue that there are cases where that doesn’t work, but compared with the sourcing of the corporate money that underpins the Westminster consensus, it’s a model of democracy and openness. Whatever may or may not have happened in Falkirk doesn’t change any of that.
Those who are fulminating about the Union/Labour link need to ask themselves a question – do you seriously believe that Britain’s political systems and culture would be improved by eliminating its principal source of non-corporate finance? And if you don’t like that money going to Labour, how about joining a union and engaging in debate?