An argument is raging about the future of the relationship between the postal workers’ CWU union and the Labour Party.
For many years the traditional argument in favour of the link between the union and Labour has been that affiliation wins a certain amount of influence on the party’s policy.
Billy Hayes, the CWU general secretary, repeated this at last month’s Labour conference, saying that the government had listened to the union’s concerns, and, as a result, had decided against the privatisation of Royal Mail.
But during the course of the strike with Royal Mail that argument has lost much of its support.
Most postal workers are acutely aware that their bosses are government appointees, and that the liberalisation of the postal industry – which forces Royal Mail to deliver its rivals’ mail at a financial loss – was a Labour government initiative.
The result has been a widespread feeling that the union’s political fund, which most CWU members opt to pay, bankrolls the Labour Party without any return for the union.
As a result many postal workers have decided to withdraw from the political fund and thousands of others are considering whether they should join them.
Those feelings found a reflection at the CWU rally in London on Monday of this week.
Dave Ward, the union’s deputy general secretary, attacked the government’s role in the dispute in scathing terms. He said, “The government put Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier, who have bullied and harassed our members, in charge. Everyone can see the results, so why let them continue to run Royal Mail?”
He concluded by saying, “I think that neither Gordon Brown, nor the Labour government, share our values.”
The anti-Brown mood is even stronger on the shopfloor.
“If I took the form to stop paying into the political fund around the Nine Elms mail centre at the moment, I would get a 95 percent take-up,” says Paul Cox, the CWU’s area processing rep for south west London.
“I find that worrying because I believe that the union needs a political voice, and the fund is used for many important campaigns. If we are to maintain the fund, it must stop being exclusively for the Labour Party. And it should only be used to fund MPs and candidates that back our union’s policies.”
Gary Smith, a CWU rep at the Coventry mail centre, echoes that feeling.
“The majority of my workmates feel utterly betrayed by Labour,” he told Socialist Worker. “That feeling has even spread to some older union activists who had previously been very loyal to the party.
“The best union activists still believe that the union needs a political voice, and that we should maintain our political fund. But there must be no more blank cheques for Brown.
“There is a danger that if at our next union conference the union leadership maintains the affiliation solely to the Labour Party, the anger among the rank and file will become so great that whole chunks of the union will vote with their feet, and leave the fund.”
If the union’s political voice is to be maintained, the acute political anger at the betrayals of the Labour government must be allowed an outlet.
While the union is set to debate the issue next year, some in the union leadership have attempted to use bureaucratic methods to prevent a full and frank discussion.
The price of this approach could lead to the serious weakening of the union’s political voice.