Why should we continue to fund those who support privatisation? Hundreds of trade unionists will be debating this question on Saturday at what promises to be one of the biggest rank and file trade union conferences for years.
The conference, organised by the Socialist Alliance, will discuss the political funds that trade unions pay almost exclusively to the Labour Party. Socialist Worker looks at the debate.
TRADE UNIONS currently fund Labour to the tune of £10 million a year. Yet all they get in return is privatisation, job cuts and demands for flexibility. Shouldn't unions concentrate on fighting for their members rather than funding Labour? The trade unions fought hard for the right to have a political fund (see below). Politics matters for trade unionists. Union leaders should be leading a fight over wages and conditions. But they should not limit themselves to these issues.
It is important that union leaders like the TGWU's Bill Morris condemn the racist scapegoating of asylum seekers, and that Paul Mackney of Natfhe spoke at the recent stop the war demonstration. It would be wrong to turn the clock back to when trade unions were denied the right to make political donations. The working class still needs an independent political voice. The question is how to provide the most effective voice.
The debate is not about disaffiliating from the Labour Party, but about union members democratically deciding where their money should be spent. Many trade union leaders, including the TGWU's Bill Morris, argue that strengthening the link would make Labour listen to the unions. But Labour is not listening.
Matt Wrack is the firefighter who proposed democratising the political fund at last year's FBU conference. He says in a new Socialist Alliance pamphlet: 'In reality unaffiliated businesses and rich individuals have more influence on the government than the unions with millions of affiliated members.' Others argue that it is the Blairites who want to change the fund. A CWU branch secretary, Steve Bell, argues in the latest issue of the rank and file paper, Post Worker:
'The move to break the union/Labour link was initiated by the Blairites. They promoted the idea that the unions were obstacles to the modernising 'project'.'
The Blairites did initiate a project to sever Labour's links with the unions. Discredited transport secretary Stephen Byers outraged trade unionists when he argued to break the link just before the TUC congress in September 1996. But Byers's project is a completely different one to ours. Byers wants to create a party which is funded by business and represents business, like the Democrats in the US.
Our project is to turn the unions towards socialist politics. Some argue that if the unions withdraw funds New Labour will become even worse. But a positive campaign over the political fund could be part of rejuvenating the unions, making them more effective campaigning organisations. As Matt Wrack points out, 'Some people have argued that if we were to democratise our funds and to consider support for other organisations the Labour Party might respond by kicking the unions out-by disaffiliating us.
'Surely the unions have the right to spend their money as their members decide, and not according to the demands of Millbank spin doctors? Why should we be held to ransom? If Labour did launch such an attack we should respond with a united campaign to defend our independence.'
Would opening up the fund allow right wing parties like the Tories, or even the Nazis, to get their hands on union money? They would be immediately excluded if the funds were used as they are supposed to be now, to finance only candidates who support union policies.
This would also exclude the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems pose as an alternative to New Labour, but they are pro-business and pro-privatisation. Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy argues for more PFI in public services in his new policy review.
During recent rail strikes the Liberal transport spokesperson, Don Foster, advocated legislation to let passengers sue the rail unions-a move that would reinstate the anti-union laws of 100 years ago. The unions should be campaigning actively for the socialist policies that would improve things for their members.
The political fund should be allocated as the members decide at conferences. That may mean Labour continuing to get the bulk of the union's funds. But it would allow members to donate to socialist candidates as well. During elections local unions could organise debates between candidates. This discussion is about much more than money. It is about what kind of alternative we want to New Labour.
John Edmonds says his GMB union is withholding some £2 million of funds from Labour over the next four years. It prefers to spend money on a poster campaign against privatisation. Edmonds has threatened not to support Labour candidates who support privatisation in the May local elections.
These are welcome moves. But the debate raises the question of what political alternative is being offered. As Matt Wrack puts it, 'The only sensible way out of this dilemma is to fight to ensure that there is a real alternative for workers. 'If Labour candidates are not worthy of union support then genuine working class candidates must be found elsewhere.'
It is not enough to support 'independents', or even single-issue anti-privatisation or anti-cuts candidates. In the general election last year Dr Richard Taylor trounced the sitting Labour MP in Wyre Forest by opposing the closure of Kidderminster Hospital under a PFI scheme.
But Taylor does not oppose all PFI schemes or privatisations. He is right wing on many issues. We need a genuine socialist alternative which can provide a voice for workers on the whole range of political issues-from taxing the rich to opposing Bush's war drive in Iraq or supporting asylum seekers.
Fighting for the right to fund politics
TRADE UNIONS have always had to struggle for the right to donate to political causes. In the 19th century the Tories and the Liberals, two parties of big business, dominated politics. Many unions gave money to the Liberals.
But growing numbers of trade unionists were becoming aware that the Liberals were hostile to working class interests. It was a huge step forward for workers when the forerunner of the Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), was set up in 1900.
The LRC gathered together trade unionists and socialists. They recognised that workers needed to organise independently of the bosses' parties. In 1901 the Taff Vale judgement outlawed picketing and forced unions to refund any money lost by a company during a strike.
This meant that even right wing, pro-Liberal union leaders were forced to support the formation of a labour party. In 1909 a union official who was a Liberal took his union to court for paying money to Labour.
The House of Lords ruled that it was illegal for the union to use its funds for political purposes. This was challenged in 1913 during the wave of strikes which swept Britain known as the 'Great Unrest'. The unions won the right to make political donations if a ballot of members agreed.
Any member who did not want to give money was allowed to 'contract out'. In a deliberate act of revenge, the Tories reversed this after the 1926 General Strike. Their anti-union laws meant that every individual union member had to 'contract in' if they wanted to pay into a political fund.
In 1946 trade unions won back the right to have a system of 'contracting out' of the political fund after the election of the Labour government. This was attacked in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher, who forced unions to hold a ballot to have a political fund. But trade unionists rebuffed Thatcher and voted overwhelmingly in every ballot to keep their political fund.
Matt Wrack's Socialist Alliance pamphlet Whose Money is it Anyway? will be available at the conference for £1.