The task of Opposition is often fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. Callous criticism often prevails over practical policies and a lack of control can lead to blunders in the battle to wrestle power away from the dominant party. During July the Labour Party suffered such a blunder. The party faced accusations that their parliamentary candidate selection in Falkirk had been rigged by their largest financial backer, Unite the union. And although there will be no criminal investigation by the police, the Labour Party has subsequently faced piercing questions regarding their links with unions. This, combined with Conservative victories in the form of the deportation of Abu Qatada and more optimistic economic conditions, has resulted in a seismic shift in the electoral balance. A shift which has left both parties scrambling for superiority in the battle for a 2015 election majority.
The situation in Falkirk surrounded accusations that Unite recruited members to the local party and in many cases paid for their membership in order to flood the constituency with Unite Labour Party members. The union claims that it didn’t break Labour Party or parliamentary rules, but in the wake of the accusations Tom Watson MP resigned as Labour’s 2015 election strategist and an internal report was forwarded to Scottish police. Labour’s links with unions have been resilient and longstanding ever since its foundation. It has been one of the primary beliefs of the Labour Party to forge bonds with those who represent the politically and economically weak. The problem is that many believe these bonds have grown too strong- their allegiance too entrenched- and consequently that the historic union relationship must be reformed. It therefore looks likely that political levy-payers of Unite, instead of automatically being affiliated to the Labour Party, will have the choice whether to opt-in to Labour Party membership. This is likely to seriously impact upon Labour Party funding, with it being estimated that Unite Labour Party membership would drop from 1,000,000 to 50,000.
Both Ed Miliband and General Secretary of Unite Len McCluskey support reforms. McCluskey has admitted that the union relationship has been worsening for some time, with the Labour Party willing to accept funding but not candidates or policy advice from Unite. He suggests that the opt-in membership proposition will go a long way to solving these problems. With an increased reliance upon the union to encourage their members to join the Labour Party he hopes that this will force the party to formulate an attractive offer for the unions, one that supports the poor and the vulnerable and puts growth at the forefront of its agenda, not one that “is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition.”
The self-explanatory problem here is that these reforms may in fact increase the Labour Party’s reliance on the unions and compound the criticism which they have already faced. But the alternative is the risk of losing the support of the unions, especially since the UK’s left-wing alternative- the Green Party- believe that “there is a very strong argument to say that union members should be able to make a choice to opt-in to funding the Green Party through their affiliation fees,” a statement which we brought you on Backbench this month. The current Labour-union relationship needs reforming, there is nothing that shows this more than the problems it caused during the past month, but striking a perfect balance will not be easy and if the party leadership can prevent future headaches when election day approaches they will have performed very aptly.
Unfortunately for Labour, their Falkirk blunder was more than capitalised upon by the Conservatives in the polls through their own successes. Indeed, the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada back to Jordan was a sizeable victory for Home Secretary Theresa May. It brought to a close an eight year saga which cost the country at least £1.7 million and signified a direct achievement of a goal which Labour were not able to accomplish. Furthermore, the positive revision of growth figures by the IMF, coupled with the news of a 0.6% growth in GDP in the three months up to June, gave signs that the economy is recovering under the Conservatives’ watch. The speculated challenges to David Cameron’s leadership of the party have also dissipated over the past few months, and although much of his rhetoric regarding Abu Qatada nearly ruined much of Theresa May’s good work- specifically due to its similarity to the rhetoric of Barack Obama regarding the much greater task of ‘getting Bin Laden’- Cameron has continued to outdo Ed Miliband, an ascendency which may prove vital in two years’ time.
Now, I must make clear, despite my detest for the petty political games between the two dominant parties, which often only lead to insignificant poll shifts, the political balance which has emerged out of the past month must be recognised as intriguing. The parties are closer than they have been for a considerable time, with an ICM poll on the 13th July suggesting that the parties were level in terms of their electoral position. And although an electoral recovery is positive news for the Conservatives, this is not a balance either party will want to humour for any amount of time; both will soon strive to implement strategies in the attempt to gain a victory margin over the other. Indeed, intriguing is the fact that these strategies will once again focus on the lynchpin of modern electoral success- the North-South divide.
As we all know, the bridge that New Labour extended to the South in the form of their centre ground policy ideals resulted in electoral success under the guidance of Tony Blair. As Ed Miliband looks to emulate New Labour’s electoral success with One Nation Labour, Cameron’s Conservatives are searching to construct a metaphorical bridge of their own to the North, the lack of which has in part limited their electoral success since 1992. If this bridge it to be built its engineer will be David Skelton, a former deputy director of Policy Exchange, who has founded a new organisation called Renewal, which aims to show how the Conservative Party can appeal to the working classes. In contrast to Conservative Home’s alternative Queen’s speech, Renewal proposes a series of policies which in theory shouldn’t repel any voter with harsh vowels; these include a higher minimum wage and stronger anti-monopoly legislation. Encouragingly, it has also been recognised that Labour has become increasingly out of touch with the northern working classes, and UKIP’s rise in the North shows receptivity to other options. Although, whether the damage of austerity has impacted upon the North too much to recover is surely something which must affect the chances of the Conservatives. At this point it is hard to see the Labour and Conservative bridges being built without serious structural difficulties.
Moving on from my slapdash electoral analysis to Backbench article of the month, and I have decided to award Article of the Month for July to Sam Mercer and his article, ‘Green is the new Red: Leftist disenfranchisement in British Politics’. As specified previously, the article reveals the perspective of the Green Party regarding union affiliation, and how they are standing up for the progressive policies Labour are not. In a month where these issues were highly charged, Sam’s article provided a valuable insight into the views of the UK’s left-wing alternative party and rightly gained widespread attention as a result. Just to briefly mention another stand out article- Jack Hillcox’s piece, ‘Terrorism: the global bogeyman in the closet’ puts America’s terrorism paranoia into perspective superbly by identifying what Americans are more likely to die as a result of (lighting and babies with automatic weapons being two examples), and reviewing the opportunity cost of spending on the War on Terror. But, as always, all commentators have to be commended- your original thought and passion for political analysis has been unprecedented for a start-up site, and your work rightly gains plaudits from across the blogosphere.
Just finally, I just want to mention our PoliticsMatters section which was launched last month. We’ve had some great contributions already and it would be fantastic if that could be continued. Obviously political apathy, especially amongst young people, is a significant problem which needs to be discussed and resolved. It would be great if you could spread the word around so we can generate a lively debate.
Oh, and on the 30th August it will be the first anniversary of the launch of Backbench. Unfortunately we won’t be hosting a birthday party this year but it could certainly be on the cards next. Instead, tweet us a picture of you cheering a glass of your preferred alcoholic beverage in celebration. It seems as good excuse as any to enjoy an end of summer drink.