Yesterday, in the heat of the Falkirk row, Lord Ashcroft published a leaked Unite strategy paper, written by the union’s political director Steve Hart. The main thrust is a discussion about how Unite are frustrated with Labour’s timidity on policy (quite right), how they wish Labour was more inclined to select working class candidates (entirely reasonably), how they’re organising to get their own people selected (which sounds worse than it is), and how they still have faith in Labour as a party of the left (bafflingly).
Tucked away on the penultimate page, though, is a short section on Scotland which has been largely ignored, but which is certainly telling.
It’s consistent with the lines given to the Record here, but does indicate the limited extent to which the Unite leadership is prepared to listen to their members. The Scottish membership, Steve reports, “doesn’t want to be rushed to a decision” – but the Unite response certainly wasn’t to avoid taking sides.
Instead they pressed the Labour leadership to set up their own partisan Devolution Commission, which “attempts to address one overriding question: how can we meet the aspirations of the Scottish people for fuller devolution while maintaining the integrity of the UK which we know they value strongly“. Neither Labour nor Unite are prepared even to ask the question here: do Scots, whether Labour members or trade unionists or not, really think Westminster is serving their best interests?
Unite then went on to press Labour to go further and establish their own pro-Westminster campaign, which was amusingly called United With Labour – perhaps as a consequence of the same psychological process I imagine lies behind the choice of name for the Ford Focus. Preserving the Union may be Labour policy, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t campaign to support it, but why are those efforts actually being led by Unite, given the more neutral position their members appear to have taken.
Through these two decisions, the open-minded and questioning uncertainty the Unite leadership found amongst their membership has been ignored and worked around in favour of a determined unionism of the other sort. Their position will develop, they say, not as led by the membership, but led by the Scottish Committee.
I’m a huge supporter of the principle of labour organising itself, and we know how much worse the workforce gets treated where they’re not organised. I have been in trade unions, too – not currently, given I’m self-employed – but I look at Westminster and do not see a political system which supports working people, let alone those unfortunate enough to be looking for work in a climate of intentional austerity, austerity supported by Labour from the opposition benches.
It reminds me of an anecdote of George Orwell’s. He was no supporter of nationalism, of course, and his essay “Notes on Nationalism” has this to say about “Celtic nationalism”:
One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection.
Despite the difficulties Ireland’s going through, few would argue now that their independence relies on British protection. To be fair, in the same essay he also includes “old-fashioned British jingoism” in his definition of nationalism, something still found within parts of the Labour Party as well as the Tories or UKIP.
But the anecdote is this. When he was young he kept noticing streets called Union Street. As a good socialist, he assumed it was in honour of the struggles of the trade union movement, but was then bitterly disappointed when he realised it was in honour of something entirely unrelated: the Act of Union. Whatever your views on independence, there should be no automatic link between unions and the Union. Inside the unions as inside Scotland, the people should decide.