The Falkirk row doesn’t look at all comfortable for Ed Miliband and Labour. Accusation and counter-accusation, a crucial resignation and now the police involved – but more important, perhaps, that the details, it asks huge questions about the current and future direction of Labour. Are they, as some sections of the media would have it, still in thrall to those ancient dinosaurs the unions? Or are they, as many on the left would suggest, little more than a ‘Tory-lite’ party, run by former Blairites and career politicians only in it for themselves: Tories with red ties.
On the surface, both claims seem to have substance. UNITE is clearly attempting to have an influence on Labour policy. So is Progress. Both have strong voices and strong reasons to do so. There are articulate, clever, politically-able people on both sides of the debate. ‘Remember your history’ say those on the side of the unions, ‘remember how you lost all those elections’ say those on the side of Progress, ‘and how Blair won all his’. Which way will Ed Miliband lean?
And yet, are those really the only two options? ‘Kow-towing’ to the unions, or ‘selling your soul’ to the corporates?
Perhaps it is time for Ed to find his own ‘third way’. Perhaps he could remember Labour’s history – but from a slightly different angle. Remember not just that Labour emerged from the unions – but why it was necessary for it to emerge from the unions. It didn’t emerge in that way because the unions were hungry for power – or even greedy for power – but because the people that the unions represented had no voice in politics. It emerged to provide an alternative to the existing powers: an alternative view and an alternative future.
Even a cursory look at today’s politics suggests that there are parallels with that situation now. The three main political parties are far too similar – and effectively represent the same kind of people and have the same outlook. They all offer the same ‘solution’ to the current crisis – the austerity ‘solution’ which doesn’t really seem to be a solution at all. No alternative is offered – and that provides the opportunity for a third way. Vast groups of people are suffering hideously – and seem to have no way to stop that, and no voice speaking for them.
What does that mean? Well, it means finding a way to support these people, and to find an alternative way. Ed doesn’t need to be in thrall to the unions – but he does need to understand how badly people are suffering, and to find a way to help them. And helping them wouldn’t mean that he was kow-towing to the unions – he should, for example, have opposed the Workfare programme NOT because the unions ‘told’ him to, but because it was a hideous and damaging programme. He should oppose many of Mr Gove’s ‘reforms’ of the education system NOT because the teaching unions tell him to – but because they’re retrograde, counter-productive and demoralising to the whole education system. There are parallels in many, many different areas.
If Labour can find this way – start being more active in opposing the false ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda, stop trying to match the Tories cut-for-cut in the austerity drive, then not only would Labour be a more distinctive and coherent party, they would also have a chance to be more independent of the unions…. because the unions would have both less desire and less need to interfere, to try to ‘influence’ policy or even candidate selection. Their members would feel less disenfranchised – and would feel Labour was more on their side. That’s what they want, I suspect. Some may be after power for power’s sake – but most just want to feel that they haven’t been abandoned, that what’s happening to them is being taken seriously. Right now, it doesn’t look as though it is. Politics looks as though it’s for the politicians, that’s all.
Will it happen? I doubt it very much. Right now the Labour Party looks as though it’s trapped – and that the ‘no alternative’ route will be taken. Finding the nerve, the guts to change that seems to be beyond the current Labour Party. They may still ‘win’ the election – but that ‘win’ would be next to meaningless for almost all of us.
This Falkirk furore, however, does offer an opportunity – at the very least for a reassessment of where Labour are, and what the alternatives are. If Ed Miliband asks the right questions, if he’s aware enough to ask not only what UNITE and others have done but why they might have felt it necessary to do it, there might be a chance that he could find his own third way. I hope he does.