Last night’s interviews and statements by Len McCluskey are very significant events indeed, and perhaps the media and the strategists of SNP and YES – usually astoundingly naive about industrial relations - will now wake up to their significance for independence at this critical time. I reproduce the interviews here and let them speak for themselves. For those of you with the time and energy to read my previous thoughts on trades unions and independence, proceed below!
I wrote this in 2011, in the context of some very dodgy contracts sealed by Glasgow City Council affecting union members -
Labour, especially Glasgow Labour, has systematically betrayed the interests of trades unions, their main party funders. To be more accurate, they have betrayed the interests of trade union members, but advanced the interests and political ambitions of some trades union officials, who have never doubted where their unswerving loyalty lay - not to their members, but to the Labour Party machine that was going advance their ambitions.
A harsh judgement maybe, but it must be seen in the context of my spending a large part of my life in industrial relations, dealing with union members, union representatives and full time officers across a range of industries in in different areas of the country. I have attended the TUC Conference and have been party to high-level discussion between senior managers and directors and union officials.
As a consistent supporter of the role and function of trades unions (often in career-threatening situations!), despite being on the other side of the table from them most of my life, I think a strong trades union movement is vital to the functioning of an effective democracy and essential to maintaining justice and equity for working people.
In consequence, I take a keen interest in the dynamics of the Scottish Trades Union movements stance on independence, and the complex interaction between individual unions, the STUC and the Labour Party. This is especially true because the Scottish National Party and the independence campaign, at least up until YES Scotland was launched, showed very little real understanding of trades unions or the left in Scottish politics, especially in Glasgow (comparatively few SNP MSPs have any industrial/trades union experience of any kind at first hand, in marked contrast to Labour) and little awareness of the widening rift between union members on one side and Labour and the official union hierarchy on the other.
However, things have changed, not only in Scotland, but in the UK, with an even wider fissure appearing between Labour and some of the major trades unions and their general secretaries, e.g. Bob Crowe and Len Mc Cluskey.
At the time of the Falkirk.Labour/Unite spat, the false initial instinct of the SNP and the YES Campaign was to take pleasure in Labour and Unite’s difficulties, and I warned against this superficial analysis and reaction at the time. I wrote this on 8th July 2013 at the time of the Falkirk debacle -
THE POWER GAMES BEING PLAYED
N.B. From here on in, I don’t pretend neutrality, and only as much objectivity as I can muster, because I am of the Left in politics and I am also a Scottish nationalist – not a SNP member or member of any party, but wholly committed to a socially democratic independent Scotland.
Labour has a long history of fights with the trades unions. Unions are by far the Labour Party’s principal source of funds through the political levy (optional) that members pay, and unions apply the funds in various ways, including sponsoring specific MPs. In return for this, they not unreasonably expect the MPs and the Party to serve the interests of their millions of members in addition to serving the whole electorate. This has always led to tensions between Party and unions. Exactly the same practices apply on funding to all political parties, with the key difference that the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties, for example, get their funds from organisations and individuals, a very much smaller group of large donors in comparison to the millions of small donors of the trades unions.
The key difference is that these corporate donors and individuals operate to a large extent behind closed doors in pursuing what they expect for their money – and they all expect something – whereas the union interaction tends to occur in a blaze of publicity.
To try and contrast the two systems in a nutshell – the trades unions, an imperfect but functioning democracy representing millions of UK workers interact with a much larger imperfect democracy in the Labour Party, whereas totally undemocratic organisations and individuals in commerce, industry, armaments and interest groups not confined to the UK interact with the imperfect democracies of the Tory and LibDem parties. Ultimately, in both cases, the trades unions interact with the over-arching and highly imperfect democracy of the UK Government.
The problem of the union conflicts with the Labour Party over the last half century (e.g. Clause Four) created - or were alleged to have created – the problem of electability, and this was specifically what Blair, Brown and Mandelson set out to remedy after Neil Kinnock had done some of the spadework. They created New Labour and it worked – Labour was elected and re-elected. The results, over 13 years, are now history. Two wars, one illegal, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, terrorism brought to UK by the Iraq War, the gap between rich and poor widened, corruption of Parliamentary institutions, the prosecution and imprisonment of Labour MPs, the resignation of the Labour Speaker of the House of Commons in disgrace, the corruption of the Press and the Metropolitan Police, the banking and financial collapse, cash for access, etc.
Hardly a success, except in one key aspect – Blair, Mandelson, Brown, Labour defence secretaries, Labour ministers and many Labour MPs got very rich indeed, in the case of Blair and Mandelson, egregiously rich.
The revolving door between government ministers, civil servants and industry – especially the defence industry – spun ever faster and more profitably. And the military/industrial complex rejoiced and celebrated New Labour’s achievements.
Meanwhile, the trades unions were marginalised, and the benches of Westminster became increasingly populated by MPs who had never experienced the real, harsh world of Blair’s Britain, MPs who came directly into politics waving their PPE degrees through internships as SPADs, etc.
This great divide, this yawning chasm has widened between the trades union movement and the political machine for enriching politicians and their friends that New Labour has become. After being finally destroyed electorally, Labour was replaced by a Coalition that is almost indistinguishable in its right-wing practices from the right-wing Labour Party. As an opposition, Labour has been feeble and equivocal. The trades unions, having placed brother Ed Miliband at the helm, vanquishing ultra-Blairite brother David Miliband, have been bitterly disappointed in their choice. And now he attacks them, setting the police on Unite.
The Falkirk debacle is symptomatic of this – a war between the Blairites (led by the noble Lord Mandelson, who cannot conceal his visceral distaste for trades unions)and what is left of the Left in the Labour Party, which is mainly the trades unions – some of them at least.
SCOTTISH DIMENSION AND INDEPENDENCE
All of the above has been gone over with a relatively fine tooth comb by the UK/metropolitan media. They see the Falkirk Affair in a UK context, from a UK perspective. The fact that Falkirk is in Scotland, that Scotland played a major role in the foundation of trades unions and the Labour Party is ancient, and mainly irrelevant history to them. This superficiality and parochialism is what Scotland has come to expect from London media. From time to time, Scotland intrudes rudely on their consciousness, and they are aware that Scottish voters are effectively disenfranchised and don’t get the government they vote for on occasion, but then, Scotland is just another region of England (sorry, Jock – UK!)
What is almost unforgiveable is that the Scottish media has swallowed this narrative whole, and conceives its duty done when they passively regurgitate it to Scottish voters. Consider the following examples -
To listen to this duo, one might think the Falkirk debacle had nothing whatsoever to do with Scotland's independence, and had no significant implications for it.
But these journalists accurately reflect a Scottish press and media that is either so locked in a UK mindset that they are oblivious to them, or are so caught up in editorial policies that don't wish to highlight them that they are hamstrung as professional journalists in telling the truth to the Scottish electorate by fully analysing a political event that is shaking up UK politics and is central in many ways to the great independence debate.