Seumus Milne writes in The Guardian: “Our political system is increasingly in the grip of corrupt corporate power. Whether it’s the food industry dictating public health policy, school academy chains stuffing the pockets of directors’ relatives, or the revolving-door appointments of politicians and civil servants to companies they previously favoured with contracts, it’s the banks and corporations that call the shots in Whitehall and Westminster.
Most of David Cameron’s Conservative party funding comes from the City. Former New Labour ministers, such as Alan Milburn – the ex-health secretary advising a venture capital firm involved in NHS privatisation, as well as both government and opposition – have won lucrative private sector contracts on the back of their years in office.
Meanwhile, the political parties outside parliament have drastically shrunk and are largely treated as a distraction from the serious business of power-broking and electoral marketing by the political elite. It’s scarcely surprising that the public regard the whole carry-on as very little to do with them, or that there was such a strong reaction to the comedian Russell Brand’s rejection of voting for parties whose differences were so “insignificant”.
Since his election as Labour leader in 2010, Ed Miliband has gingerly tried to shift the terms of political trade and caused establishment apoplexy with his attacks on predatory capitalism and his plan to freeze energy prices. The Times reports corporate executives complaining that while Labour’s Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna are “well regarded in corporate circles” and have been “heavily courted”, they do not have “sufficient clout” to rein in Miliband.
That is the context of the permanent onslaught on Labour’s links with the trade unions, the only force still connected to mainstream politics which sits outside the corporate merry-go-round and gives political access to working class people. That’s why the media keeps up its Orwellian denunciation of elected union leaders as “bosses” and “barons”, while company bosses are described as “business leaders” – and why every strike is treated as tantamount to high treason.
It’s also why the only media and Westminster test of Miliband’s Labour reforms is whether they cut union influence enough. At the moment they’re not entirely sure, perhaps partly because most reporting of the issue is so wildly inaccurate. In any case, nothing short of the exemplary arrest of a few union leaders would satisfy some of Miliband’s tormentors.
The reality is that the Labour leader was panicked into demanding sweeping changes to the union link by false allegations of rigging by the Unite union at the Falkirk parliamentary selection last summer. As the party’s leaked internal report demonstrates, even the flaky evidence it provided did not back up those claims. What had in fact happened was that Unite had recruited several dozen industrial workers to the local party to help select a candidate who would break the monopoly of the existing parliamentary elite.
Miliband’s reforms have avoided the more extreme options championed by Blairite diehards. But they risk failing in the Labour leader’s aim of “letting people back into politics”, quite apart from the threat to the party’s income. True, the collective union link is maintained and MPs will lose their disproportionate voice in leadership elections.
But by setting up a new double hurdle for union political levy payers to keep the voting rights they already have, the danger is that fewer people will end up having a say than before. Just under 200,000 union levy-payers voted in Labour’s 2010 leadership election, out of a total of around 323,000, many of them the shopworkers, bus drivers, nurses and building workers Miliband says he wants to get involved in politics.
Labour will now be lucky to get that number next time, which will probably be fewer than 10% of the 2.7 million currently eligible to vote. There will certainly be many fewer taking part in the London mayoral selection contest. Add to that the fact that the Labour leadership resisted giving the new “affiliated supporters” a say in parliamentary selections – where the future shape of the Commons is decided – and the conservatism of the reforms is clear.
They could be improved over the next five years, or instead lay the ground for the disintegration of the link if Labour were to lose the general election. Miliband has set himself the goal of increasing participation. But people will only take part if they see it makes a difference, and years of erosion of party democracy and New Labour neoliberalism have left many trade unionists ready to break the link themselves.
The paradox is that the more people walk away from the political parties, the more they are dominated by professional politicians, corporate interests and political insider dealing. What happens in the mainstream parties matters because they are the ones running the political system.
That point has even penetrated the moribund Tory grassroots, which have started to kick back against the Westminster elite by deselecting two MPs in a week. The real test for a Labour party revival will be whether Miliband is bold enough to throw his weight behind the kind of policies that would attract alienated voters, from a mass council housebuilding programme to universal childcare and 21st century rights at work.
That needs a stronger union voice and working class voice in politics, not a further hollowing out of Labour’s organisation. The more the political elite is sealed off from any kind of political and social counterweight, the more control will be exercised by a City and corporate oligarchy.” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/05/counterweight-city-corporate-power-labour-unions?CMP=twt_gu)