Unions make hay behind the flurrying skirts of the fracas

23:57, Dec 03 2012

Aneurin "Nye" would have loved this year's Labour Party Conference.

He was an old-fashioned, hard-hitting union leader, Labour to his bootlaces, a British politician with some lovely turns of phrase.

As I watched the conference, his quip "You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm," comes to mind.

It wasn't all the personal and emotional stuff between the two Davids that would have caught his eye; that was surely par for the course. Rather, it would have been the fact that the Labour Party as a whole, with its own political spasm, readmitted the union movement back into its bosom, like some wriggling and venomous asp.

Oh, what a powerful and successful power grab; oh, how clever to do it behind the skirts of an emotional leadership fray.

Under the party's new leadership voting laws these unions, although some still coyly refer to them as affiliates, now directly control 20 per cent of the vote.


Individually, union members will also work within the party structure, gaining control of many of their Labour Electorate Committees, thereby grabbing another sizeable chunk of control from the party's 40 per cent of the vote on deciding who will lead the party.

David Shearer is surely only a "fill in" for the moment; he really just doesn't cut the mustard.

S,o shortly, maybe early next year, we will see a new Labour leader and he will be elected by the unions.

The other David, despite his abysmal public persona and unfortunate snarl, fits the unions' mould. It follows that in a future Labour government, with a union-elected prime minister, the teachers' union will be able to pick a compliant minister and the Trade Union Council will pick a former unionist as minister of Industrial Affairs, with a stated priority to bring back compulsory unionism.

The minister in charge of the public service will probably be a former president of the Public Service Association.

This union takeover has almost passed beneath the radar. In the thousands of words written about this Labour Party conference, only this paper had a headline "Unions claw back party power." But the copy didn't really get into the guts of the issue of union control of the party; rather, the writer implied that this shift in power was all bad news for one David Shearer.

Well, that may be so, but is that the burning issue? Surely giving all the voting cards to some faceless men and women in the back rooms of the union movement is far more newsworthy. The grassroots people of Labour will soon realise that they have sold their hard-gained independent left wing inheritance for a mess of pottage.

They will then have to fight another rearguard action, similar to that waged by Helen Clark and her supporters when she ousted the destructive union's influences from her party in the 1980s.

Just imagine the Tories handing over control of the selection of their leader to Federated Farmers; think of the imbalances of power that would cause.

So the spirit of Nye Bevan (he died in 1960) would have sat in the rear of that hall, chuckling to himself about the resurgence of his beloved union movement.

He grew up working in the mines of south Wales. At the age of 29, he was employed as a union official at £5 a week and led his men on many a strike.

In 1929, he had been noticed by the British Labour Party and won the seat of Ebbw Vale.

His nemesis was Winston Churchill, who he referred to as "a man suffering from petrified adolescence".

He quickly rose to become a Cabinet minister, probably following his own advice that "there are only two ways of getting into Cabinet. One is to crawl up the staircase of preferment on your belly; the other is to kick them in the teeth."

He followed the latter course, and could have taught the hapless David Shearer a thing or two at this year's conference.