'FROM MILITANCY TO MODERATION'
Daily Telegraph – 30 April 1984
Leading moderate trade unionists are convinced that mandatory secret postal ballots for the election of key union officials and executives would dramatically shift union politics away from control by the militant Left. Yet, the Trade Union Bill provides only for "secret" ballots to be held at workplaces.
This is so open to manipulation and abuse that the Communist ballot-riggers of the old Electrical Trades Union would have been perfectly happy with it.
The introduction of postal balloting from the privacy of the union member's home was mainly responsible for transforming the ETU (now the EETPU) and the Engineers' Union (AUEW) from militancy to moderation in their impact both on industrial affairs and Labour Party policy.
Had it applied to the recent election for general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mr Scargill's Left-wing ally, Mr Peter Heathfield, would probably have been defeated. The effect upon the present dispute might have been substantial.
Some Conservatives are quite content with an extremist Opposition. This, they reason, will help them win future General Elections more easily. It is a blinkered and short-term view.
The far Left knows perfectly well that its policies may delay Labour's return to power. What it realises, unlike these Conservatives, is that, whether one likes it or not, the electorate will eventually decide that the time has come to change the Government.
As the electoral system will probably prevent any breakthrough by the SDP/Liberal Alliance, when the swing of the pendulum occurs it will lead to the return of a far-Left Government with potentially irreversible consequences.
Very few Right-wing moderates now remain in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The constituency parties are increasingly run by incorrigible extremists, whose local committees select and re-select Parliamentary candidates, thus shifting the Parliamentary Party further and further to the Left.
The only hope for improvement, therefore, lies with moderate trade unions--for so long the basis of Labour's anti-Communist strength in the 1940s and 1950s. After further General Election defeats for the party, they might succeed in forcing through the reforms needed to break the grip of the extremists upon it.
Conservative rebels chose the wrong target in trying to cripple Labour's finances by introducing an "opt-in" provision for the political levy: if the electoral pendulum swings sufficiently, Labour will not be prevented from victory at the polls through shortage of funds. It is the party's internal power-structure, rather than its financial resources, which will be of decisive importance.
It is possible that the Bill may be amended in the Lords to make secret postal ballots for important trade union posts compulsory. If the Government belatedly recognises the need for this, it will strike a major blow not only against industrial militancy but in favour of a healthy return to responsible adversary politics.
Once enacted, the right of union members to elect their officials free from cheating and intimidation will be virtually impossible to rescind. Is this unique opportunity going to be wasted?
Dr JULIAN LEWIS