'My union has supported Labour candidates in every election since it was founded more than 100 years ago. But no longer can the party take the support of our members for granted.'
That was the New Year message to the Labour Party from John Edmonds, leader of one of Britain's biggest unions, the GMB. After talking to Edmonds, the Mirror reported, 'Labour has lost the support of the GMB after a furious row over public services. The move could have massive implications for the historical link between Labour and the unions.'
Only two years ago Edmonds reacted with horror to suggestions by the leader of the Fire Brigades Union that trade union money should not automatically go to New Labour.
There is now a great debate sweeping through the trade union movement. It is about whether or not the unions should continue to fund the Labour Party. It is focusing the anger of millions of working people at a government that privatises services and holds back workers' rights.
The main alternative being discussed at present is to give some money to Labour and some to other organisations. These might include the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Greens or even independent candidates who back the unions' policies better than New Labour. In a few weeks time, on 16 March, the Socialist Alliance is holding a conference for trade unions to talk about these issues.
The Scottish Socialist Party and the Welsh Socialist Alliance are now also sponsoring the conference. Many trade union branches have put their weight behind the conference. These include the postal workers' CWU branches in Merseyside, south east and south west Wales, Neasden RMT, Camden Unison and Ealing NUT. London region Fire Brigades Union committee member Matt Wrack has urged people to build the conference, saying: 'The London region of the FBU has agreed to send an unlimited number of delegates. We know how important this conference is for all trade unionists.'
Hundreds of letters of support have flooded in to the conference organisers. Union branches have already begun to elect their delegates. For a century Labour has been the only party which received national funding from trade unions. That is now up for grabs.
The GMB has already slashed its money to Labour twice. It may back candidates opposed to Labour in this year's council elections.
'New Labour gets millions from union members in my union, Amicus. What do we get in return?' says London health worker Gill George. 'When health secretary Alan Milburn made his announcement about handing hospitals over to private firms, my union leadership said they welcomed his statement! I'm a workplace rep for speech therapists. At our section meeting last week we agreed to support the conference about the political fund and send a delegate. Others have also said they want to go.'
What is the political fund?
TRADE UNIONS are not legally allowed to support a political party in any way out of the general fund raised from subscriptions. They have to set up a separate political fund, funded by a separate subscription. Today trade union members are assumed to want to pay into this fund unless they ask to 'contract out'.
The political fund is used for affiliations to parties, to campaigns such as the Anti Nazi League, and for general campaigns which might be regarded as party political. Some unions (such as Unison) have a general political fund for campaigning on political issues and another fund for those who specifically want to back Labour. The history of unions' funding for Labour is linked at every stage to developments in the class struggle.
- 1875-a political voice: Unions were given legal protection for their funds. Some gave money to political parties-first the Liberals and then Labour.
- 1909-the Osborne judgement: W V Osborne, a Liberal who was an official in the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, took the union to court for paying members' subscriptions to Labour. This meant unions could not fund parties, and caused huge problems for the early Labour Party.
- 1913-unions win reform: In the middle of a period of many strikes, the unions won a new law. This allowed political donations as long as a ballot confirmed setting up a fund and members were allowed to 'contract out'.
- 1927-revenge for General Strike: After the 1926 General Strike the Tories introduced anti-union laws. These included forcing every individual member to give specific permission if they wanted any of their subs to go to a political fund ('contracting in').
- 1946-another reform: The post-war Labour government restored the rights that had existed before 1927 and gave limited new ones.
- 1984-back to the past: Margaret Thatcher's Tory government forced unions to hold ballots if they wanted a political fund. This rebounded spectacularly on the Tories as union members voted overwhelmingly for a political voice.
- 2000-cracks appear: Deep disillusion with New Labour led to the communication workers' CWU union conference refusing to increase its contribution to the party and voting to completely break the link with Labour if privatisation continued.
- 2001-more dissent: The FBU firefighters' union voted to open up the political fund to parties other than Labour. Unison voted to hold a review of where its money goes. The RMT began the process of reviewing how it uses its fund.
Join debate at this conference
The conference on the political fund, organised by the Socialist Alliance, takes place on Saturday 16 March at the Camden Centre, Bidborough Street, London WC1 (near King's Cross station).
SIGN UP NOW. You do not have to be delegated by your trade union branch to attend the conference.
ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO REGISTER. You can get forms from the Socialist Alliance office to take round your workmates to get them to sign up.
RAISE SUPPORT IN YOUR UNION MEETING. Union branches can debate and decide to sponsor the conference as well as send delegates.
APPROACH OTHER TRADE UNIONS. There are many people in workplaces and communities who would like the chance to go to the conference. Draw up a list and arrange to visit local workplaces and trade unionists.
Phone the Socialist Alliance on 020 7791 3138 or email [email protected]
Where should the money go?
The debate over the political fund is about more than the millions that trade unions hand over to New Labour. It is about whether there is an alternative to Labour. The political fund has traditionally tied trade unions to Labour, even as the party's policies have shifted further and further to the right. The answer is not to abandon the political fund altogether.
This would mean organisations that gather together working people-who are the majority in society-abandoning any political stance. Rather the political fund should be freed up to allow other candidates who offer a left challenge to New Labour to be supported. This would mean supporting candidates who identify more closely with the union's aims and objectives. This would exclude right wing or Nazi groups benefiting from the fund.
In those unions where a political fund does not exist activists should argue for one to be set up, and for it to allow funding of political candidates. Such a move would add to the growing anger against privatisation. It would also be a direct challenge to the union leaders who have consistently backed New Labour's policies in the name of their union members.
Millions at stake
Does new Labour give value for money? The unions and individual union members still contribute around 40 percent of Labour's year on year funding. Their money is even more important at election time. Labour raised around £5.3 million for its election fund last year.
Unions provided over £3.75 million of this. Some 21 unions are affiliated to Labour. The unions provide around £10 million in annual affiliation fees and donations. Some examples from last year of total payments including affiliation fees and donations are:
GMB £2.8 million, Unison £2 million, AEEU (now Amicus) £2 million, CWU £1.5 million, TGWU £1.1 million, Usdaw £1.1 million, GPMU £500,000, MSF (now Amicus) £350,000, RMT £150,000, Aslef £100,000.