Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Labour and the Unions

The Conservatives yesterday released the following:

"• Almost 90 per cent of Labour's donations now come from the unions, up from 34 per cent in the same period last year and still rising from 74 per cent in the previous quarter.
• In addition, new analysis shows that Labour is £2 million in debt to a trade union bank. The bank is 73 per cent owned by trade unions with senior union officials making up over half the non-exec board."

Labour's finances are now in such a dire state that they are effectively returning to being, at least in financial terms, the political arm of the Union movement.

Blair's big legacy is unlikely to be in international affairs or any particular change to the British state. Instead, it seems most likely that his most important achievement will be the change he made to the Labour party and British politics by ending the long twentieth century class war. Through the Clause IV moment, the rejection of most initiatives to reverse Thatcher's curbing of union power and his appeal to Middle England Blair killed the socialist dream of revenge for the long years of Tory domination and announced the end of class war politics.

Now look at the two parties: The Conservatives leadership is dominated by Old Etonians and Labour are being bankrolled entirely by the Unions. Despite this the parties are managing to maintain an impressive veneer of centrist respectability. The question has to be how long this can last if the unions manage to turn their financial interest into political influence. If it breaks down the potential for fiery class rhetoric is huge and could turn British politics very ugly, very quickly.

This also makes the Union Modernisation Fund, which I wrote about for the Little Red Book of Labour Sleaze, even more morally questionable. If the Labour party is almost entirely dependent upon the Unions then introducing legislation to give them state money is an even less honest idea than when they were only providing a third of Labour's revenue. Francis Maude's statement that this is "very, very direct sleaze. That is buying influence and buying taxpayers' money" has become an even more accurate description of what is going on.

Finally, anything which significantly increases the power of the unions is a very bad thing for the country's future prosperity. Britain's unions were our economic nemesis through most of the twentieth century and it was Thatcher's confrontation of them through the coal strike and privatisations that allowed labour to be shifted to where it was most needed and working practices to be reformed. That Labour's dishonest fundraising in the past is presenting an opportunity for the unions to make a comeback is a true indictment of that party's leadership. Look at their political priorities now and you'll see the potential for economic harm; limits on working hours, extending regulation to agency workers and a tax and spend state.

The Labour party's increased financial dependence upon the unions is a deeply worrying trend for British politics. The Conservatives are absolutely right to raise the alarm.

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