Union political funds: No pick-and-mix politics

Submitted by AWL on 13 September, 2002 - 10:01

by Gerry Bates

Not the sort of TUC Congress we have become accustomed to in recent years! The outspoken challenges to New Labour at this year's TUC by Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow, Mick Rix, Derek Simpson and others of the "new generation" of union leaders put the question of union political funds into a new light.
Do we want to hear the same sort of outspoken challenge from the unions at the Labour Party conference at the end of September? We do.

We know that even the most outspoken challenge will not undo Blair's pro-capitalist transformation of Labour into "New Labour". The best outcome, from the most vigorous challenge, would probably be that Blair's faction abandons all pretence to represent the labour movement and cuts loose completely from the trade unions, taking most Labour MPs with it. But the other side of that outcome would be a trade union movement - or, at least, a sizeable fraction of the trade union movement - mobilised and prepared to restore mass working-class political representation, to create a new workers' party. The struggle would "de-labourise" New Labour but "re-labourise" the unions.

For this or that left-wing union, particularly fed-up with New Labour, to hive off now would be wrong. It would weaken and fragment the collective trade-union protest against Blair. Given the real balance of forces in politics, it would almost certainly set that left-wing union on a course away from any working-class politics and towards political "pick-and-mix", backing individual Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalist, or Plaid politicians who seem to be "friends of labour".

Socialists should argue against unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party. That does not mean that we respond to union members' discontent with their money going to Blair by just telling them to play safe and stick with the status quo. Not at all.

- Unions should reduce their contributions to the Labour Party to the flat minimum affiliation fee, ending all extra donations. The CWU has already done this.

- Unions should withdraw sponsorship to MPs who flout or oppose union policies. The RMT has already done this.

- Unions should demand that their representatives in New Labour structures fight for union policy. For five years now those union representatives have almost all just been rubber-stamping Blair's directives, often in direct defiance of their own union policies. The shift in the union leaderships opens the way for change on this front.

- Union funds should be used for independent and positive working-class political campaigning, for example to promote referenda on privatisation, or to demand a European workers' charter rather than aiding the big-business "yes" or "no" campaigns on the euro.

- Unions should open collective and critical debate on whom they back in elections, with the option of backing independent working-class candidates in some places against New Labour. The Fire Brigades Union took a decision on those lines at its May 2001 conference. At this year's FBU conference the leadership managed to overturn the decision with the claim that it meant disaffiliating from Labour. Our reply to such claims should be: if the New Labour leaders want to expel the union for such actions, then just let them try. They didn't dare take any action against the unions and Labour Party members who backed Ken Livingstone for London mayor against Frank Dobson, did they?

Unfortunately the debate on the left around this issue has become confused. Straight after the FBU decision in May 2001, the Socialist Alliance office put out a broadsheet (done jointly with the Scottish Socialist Party) headlined "Make the break!", suggesting that the FBU had disaffiliated from the Labour Party and that other unions should also break the link.

Debate followed. The "disaffiliationists" retreated. From "make the break", most people in the Socialist Alliance shifted to the slogan "democratise the political funds". Originally that meant pursuing a policy like the FBU's May 2001 decision.

At the Socialist Alliance's March 2002 trade union conference, the nails were hammered into the coffin of the "make the break" argument - or so it seemed. A Socialist Alliance pamphlet by FBU activist Matt Wrack, published at the conference, replied flatly: "Are you calling for unions to disaffiliate from Labour? No." It emphasised the idea of "an independent working-class political voice", "a political voice for working people", and stressed that no union money should be allowed to go to Tories or Liberal Democrats.

Since then, however, some people in the Socialist Alliance, notably the SWP, have been interpreting "democratise the political funds" as "fragment the political funds". They build on a tentative passage in Matt Wrack's pamphlet, where he suggested that maybe "the union could distribute the political fund proportionally according to a vote of the membership or a vote at the union's conference... [or] the union may wish to delegate control of the fund... to the local organisations of the union".

Such fragmentation would be a step backwards. It contradicts the whole principle of unions being collective bodies mustering collective resources to deploy them for collective working-class interests.

If the union political fund is to be dispersed according to a vote of the membership - so many per cent to New Labour, so much to the Tories, so much to the Liberal Democrats, and a little bit to the Socialist Alliance - then why go the roundabout route of collecting a political fund in the first place? Why not just go with the "democracy" of the free market and say that every union member should individually give money to whichever political party he or she prefers?

The fragment-the-funds policy would also work to weaken and blur the political clashes between the unions and New Labour, rather than sharpening them as socialists should surely wish to do. If only 50% of the political fund goes to New Labour, well then, in relation to New Labour the union bureaucrats can reasonably claim that they only represent that 50% and should toe New Labour policies. The dissidents have had their "say" by being allowed their five per cent, or whatever, of the fund.

The attraction of the fragment-the-funds policy is that it seems to open the door to the Socialist Alliance getting some trade union money without having to jump the impossibly high bar of getting unions to affiliate to the Alliance. But, in the first place, our policy should be based on broad principles rather being worked out "backwards" from calculations of practical advantage (getting our hands on some cash). In the second place, proposing an implausible wholesale rearrangement of union constitutions is not even a speedy way to get cash.

Some local union branches have supported Socialist Alliance candidates, or other independent working-class candidates such as the "Save Our Services" candidate in Wandsworth in this May's council elections promoted by the local Trades Council. They can very well do so without propounding any general principle of fragmenting the union political funds. They can and should say that the whole union should be supporting those independent candidates, and they are taking a local initiative only because the national leadership is lagging or obstructive.

In almost all unions local branches do not have special political funds. They can still make donations to independent working-class election campaigns, either directly, or, if they are more cautious, by such means as generous expenses payments to speakers from the independent campaigns.

"Use union funds to pursue collective working-class interests!" That should be our slogan, not "fragment the political funds".

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