The political levy debate: Should the unions dump Labour?

Socialist Appeal has published this special supplement as a contribution to the current debate surrounding union funding for the Labour Party. Socialist Appeal calls for trade unionists to not contract out, but to contract in, and reclaim the party that the unions created 100 years ago.

The political levy debate:

Should the unions dump Labour?

Tony Blair was accused recently of being "more Thatcherite than Thatcher". This was the verdict of the Transport Workers' Union after Blair's decision to privatise the defence yards at Faslane, Rosyth and Devonport. With thousands of jobs in jeopardy, this was a privatisation too far.

Blair has stolen the Tories' clothes and has taken the Labour Party far to the right. "The Labour Party is more pro-business, pro-wealth creation, pro-competition than ever before," Gordon Brown stated recently.

In 1997, millions voted Labour after 18 years of rotten Toryism. It was an overwhelming rejection of the Tories and all they stood for. Now, after five years of Labour government, patience is wearing thin. Blair continues with pro-business policies, public services are crumbing while the gap between rich and poor has grown into a canyon.

Blair has also linked up with the extreme right in Europe - Berlusconi and Aznar - to undermine workers' rights. Workers in Britain already have less workplace protection, work the longest hours and have the shortest holidays in Europe. Last year, the official figures for the number of deaths at work rose by 32%. There is even talk of increasing the retirement age to 70!

Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar have called on EU states to introduce "more flexible types of employment contracts", to replace labour laws with "soft regulation" and to increase "the effectiveness of public employment services…by opening this market to the private sector."

Anyone who dares oppose these pro-business policies, especially the trade unions, is denounced as a "wrecker" and a "small c conservative". This is an insult to the millions of public sector workers who are opposed to handing over hospitals to private profiteers. It is the Blairites who are presiding over declining services after years of neglect. They are Conservatives with a big C.

The mood in the unions is beginning to boil over. Last year's Fire Brigades Union conference passed a resolution that called for its political fund to be used only to support organisations and candidates that support union policy. UNISON also passed a motion calling for a review of its political fund. The GMB has decided to cut £2 million to the Labour Party over the next four years, and the CWU and RMT have threatened similar action. Similar discussions will take place at a number of this year's trade union conferences.

The Socialist Alliance in their pamphlet "Whose money is it anyway?" by Matt Wrack, attempts to take up this question. "At a time when the Labour Government is carrying out sweeping attacks on public services the issue of the political fund is a vital one for every trade union member. This pamphlet, which argues for the democratisation of the trade union political funds so that union members' interests can be effectively represented, is presented as a contribution to the debate," states the pamphlet.

Who can oppose the "democratisation" of union funds, any more than "democratisation" of the trade unions - or "democratisation" of the Labour Party for that matter? The members of the union must be able to decide the policy of the union, its priorities and how its money is to be spent.

The pamphlet goes on to explain that the Labour Party was set up in 1900 by the trade unions as the political expression of the working class in Parliament. Ever since the House of Lords' ruling in 1909, the ruling class has repeatedly attempted to stop or undermine this trade union funding of the Labour Party, the latest being the Thatcher legislation on political funds.

And why was this? Clearly, the ruling class did not want the unions financing their own party, to represent the interests of working people. They regarded the Labour Party as a potential danger to themselves and their system, especially in times of social crisis.

Unfortunately, Matt Wrack's analysis skips over 90 years of Labour history from the Trade Union Act of 1913 to today's Blairite control of the Labour Party. In that 90-year period, the party has repeatedly swung to the left and swung to the right, has filled up and emptied out. After the highpoint of the left under Tony Benn, the last 20 years has witnessed an emptying out of the workers' organisations and a sharp swing to the right at the top of the movement, not only in Britain but internationally. This reflected the period of relative "boom", and the weakening of the class struggle. It was epitomised by the victories of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the United States.

This shift to the right also reflected itself in the victory of "New Realism", social partnership or class collaboration within the trade unions. In the Labour Party it resulted in the victory of Blairism. The Blairites are in reality Tories that have infiltrated and taken over the tops of the party. But we should remember that this is nothing new. We just have to recall the role of Ramsay MacDonald.

More recently, the 1964-70 Wilson Labour Government carried through an incomes policy and attempted to introduce anti-trade union legislation. This created widespread opposition within the labour movement. In South Wales miners' lodges threatened to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. These policies led to defeat in 1970, and prepared a sharp swing to the left.

The same process took place in 1974-79, where the pro-business policies of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government pushed the unions into opposition. This was to culminate in the Winter of Discontent. The defeat of 1979 again pushed the Labour Party dramatically to the left.

Events decide. Events fill out the ranks of the movement, and experience pushes them to the left. An absence of such events, along with the lack of any lead from the left - who lack a programme and a perspective - leads in the opposite direction. If the perspective before us was one lacking in the events necessary to shake up the entire movement, then maybe Blair could complete his "Project" - to wreck the Labour Party. But does anyone seriously propose such a perspective?

"So the Blair 'Project' can be viewed as an attempt to reverse the decision of 1900, that working people needed a separate political organisation to represent their interests. Indeed, Tony Blair has stated that he regrets that the split between Labour and the Liberals took place. The Blair Revolution is the process not of modernising the Labour Party but of taking it back a hundred years," states the Socialist Alliance pamphlet.

It goes on to say that "all this creates a dilemma for the Blairites. They wish to distance themselves from the unions but unfortunately the unions continue to be a major source of funding for the party."

Unfortunately the author is missing the point. The "Project" to destroy the Labour Party has ground to a halt - not because of the lack of alternative money, but the opposition from the Labour movement. The cracks in the Parliamentary Party are a reflection of the deep-seated opposition that exists to Blair's policies. The "Project" is even now unravelling.

It is to be welcomed that Wrack, unlike others on the ultra-left, argues against the unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party. He also says people should stay in and fight. However, he is trying to face in different directions, and reduces the struggle against Blairism to a question of how the unions should spend their money.

"The present political funding of New Labour by the unions means trade unionists are paying huge amounts of money to Labour in order to be ignored." Bro. Wrack says we could better spend the money in fighting privatisation. However, when has the fight against privatisation been a problem of finance? The problem has been the lack of willingness on the part of the union leaders to effectively lead such a struggle.

In any case, to cut back the financial support for Labour is not going to defeat Blairism. Blair wants to break the union link. He has considered state financing as an alternative. A fight against Blairism can only be a political struggle within the Labour Party. After all, who put Blair into the leadership in the first place? The bulk of the unions supported Blair. The trade union leaders still support him.

"Unfortunately, the union representatives on Labour's National Executive have been some of the most loyal Blairites going," states the pamphlet. "What is the point of electing trade union delegates onto Labour's executive if they subsequently ignore the policies of their own union at every opportunity?" But surely that is the point! If they are not representing the members they should be removed and replaced with representatives who will.

When opposition to PFI was raised on the NEC, most, if not all, of the union representatives supported Blair. It is the union leaders who keep Blair in power, not the members' money! In UNISON, it is well-known that the political fund - APF - rather than fighting for union policy in the Labour Party, is a way of bringing Blairite policies into UNISON. And whose responsibility is that?

The trade unions control 50% of the vote at Labour's Annual Conference. They have a massive influence and say in the party. Yet the trade union leaders have allowed Blair get away with murder! They have given him a free hand. It is time we put a stop to this!

The logic of the Socialist Alliance's argument, despite any protestations to the contrary, would be disaffiliation. This would mean running away from a fight the unions easily have the power to win.

The attempt by the Alliance to defeat the Tory policies of New Labour by standing in elections is a blind alley. The last 100 years have proved that you cannot influence the Labour Party from outside. It has been tried repeatedly and failed.

The key to the Labour Party is the trade unions. The Labour Party was founded to represent the working class, but it has been hijacked by a bunch of middle-class Tories. It is about time the unions reclaimed the party they created.

A trade union-led campaign to reclaim the party as has been raised by Bob Crow and Mick Rix (see below) would find a big echo. The left unions have a responsibility to launch such an initiative. They must convene a conference open to all trade unionists to organise reclaiming the party. This would become the focal point around which the mounting opposition to Blairism inside the movement could rally, and provide a real means to defeat Blair inside the party. The unions should sign up their members to Labour not to support Blair but to stop privatisation, to renationalise the railways, to protect the NHS. Union delegates should flood ward branches, CLPs, conferences and executives to defend union policy and fight to reclaim the party.

That means a struggle for an alternative programme to the pro-business polices of Blair. It means a fight for an alternative socialist programme, based upon the end of PFI and PPP.

Demand your union takes up the fight! Join with us in the struggle to defeat Blairism and reclaim the labour movement for socialist policies!

  • Don't play into Blair's hands! Don't contract out - contract in!
  • No more privatisation. Hands off the NHS.
  • Renationalise the railways and other privatised companies.
  • Trade unionists reclaim Labour. Defeat Blairism!
  • For workers' MPs on workers' wages.
  • Fight for socialist policies!

Addendum:

From The Guardian, May 1, 2002:

Give us back our party

By Bob Crow and Mick Rix

Alienation from the political process is running deep, but nowhere deeper than among the working class. It was abstention among Labour's most committed voters that sent the turnout plummeting at the last general election. It is apathy that ploughs the furrow where the far right plants the seed, as we have just seen in France and as we may discover when votes are counted after tomorrow's local elections.

Evidence is accumulating that those with the most to hope for from democracy are being turned off the fastest. We have a responsibility to act before voting becomes as middle class as croquet. It is an issue that New Labour, for all its pollsters, psephologists and PR gurus, seems reluctant to address. It is unlikely that gimmicks to make voting easier (it has never been very hard) are going to make much difference.

We believe that it is time the Labour party was reclaimed for labour, that it learned once more to listen to the voice of the class it enfranchised. Yes, we have a Labour government with a vast majority in the House of Commons. Yet five years on, 15 trade union leaders had to gather, as we did in London last weekend, to demand that Britain meets its obligations under the International Labour Convention and repeal the legislation which allows the prime minister to boast that he presides over trade union laws which are "the most restrictive in the western world".

In Britain, solidarity action is unlawful, and even the right to strike is hedged about with hurdles and qualifications. The effect of such restrictions is to make tackling inequality and injustice even harder. The general public does not gain from legally enfeebled trade unions, but bad employers do. And it has now been proved beyond doubt that if trade unions are driven out of politics - New Labour's maximum programme - there is no alternative means of representing working-class concerns to hand.

Democratic trade unionism is much more than a sectional interest: it is a rampart in defence of human rights and public decency in a way which, to be frank, neither Bernie Ecclestone or Lakshmi Mittal are ever likely to be. A PM who is fond of invoking the "international community" for his foreign adventures should be ashamed of being in breach of international conventions to which Britain has signed up. We are not suggesting that Britain be threatened with armed attack because of New Labour's defiance of the international community's agreed labour standards - fortunately, there are other ways to make Britain a decent world citizen.

Trade unions are still potentially decisive in shaping Labour policy. The party is still our representation committee - if we choose to make it so. OK, we don't write cheques for £125,000 and expect the PM to write a letter on our behalf by return. That deluxe service is reserved for business leaders. But our representatives are there when policy is debated, have votes when votes are counted and are embedded in the life of the party at every level.

All that is required is the will to use that influence democratically. For example, Tribune editor Mark Seddon presented a motion to the last meeting of Labour's national executive calling for a halt to moves to privatise public services. The motion expressed the opinions of millions of trade unionists and ordinary voters. It also expressed the policy of almost every union affiliate to the Labour party. Yet the great majority of trade union representatives attending the meeting sheepishly voted the way ministers wanted and prevented the motion's adoption. Had they done otherwise, it would have helped send a clear message to government that our opposition to the privatisation of the NHS is more than just rhetorical.

Likewise, at the party's annual conference, we can make policy if we want to, the more so since our opposition to privatisation and our support for a better deal for trade unions and employees in the workplace are shared by many and probably most party members, who prefer Labour's traditions to the embrace of suspect business leaders. If we have a government that is more Berlusconi than Bevin, it is only because we tolerate it.

Now that New Labour has found out the hard way the corrupting consequences of inviting the right into their political parlour, there could be no better time for the unions to play a more open, and proud, part in Labour's policy debates. Were that to happen, millions more people might decide to make a choice in the polling booths - because they would feel they had one.

Bob Crow is general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union; Mick Rix is general secretary of the traindrivers' union.