The GMB, one of Britain’s largest unions, is to withdraw sponsorship from a third of the 108 Labour MPs it backs because they are not implementing union policies.
This is a warning shot to Labour that workers will not give unquestioning support to a party that continues to attack them. It comes at a time when other major trade unions that are affiliated to Labour will also be debating the question at their national conferences.
At its annual conference in Plymouth, the GMB named the first six of up to 35 Labour MPs it will withdraw funding from.
They are Meg Munn, junior minister at the foreign office and MP for Sheffield Heeley, Stephen Ladywood, MP for Thanet South and vice-chair of Labour, and four MPs who are parliamentary private secretaries to government ministers.
These are Christine Russell, MP for Chester, Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham, Sharon Hodgson, MP for Gateshead East, and Adrian Bailey, MP for West Bromwich West.
Paul Kenny, GMB general secretary, said, “There are a number [of MPs] who at times seem to be embarrassed by a relationship with the unions and we don’t want to embarrass them by giving them union money.”
The union provides £400,000 in donations to local Labour constituency parties and over £1 million a year to the party nationally. Kenny told the conference GMB would not be a “cash cow” for the party.
He also said it had decided not to indemnify its two Labour national executive members against the party going bankrupt.
Labour is £24 million in debt and has over £13 million worth of loans up for renegotiation this year. “We are not going to use our money to pay back loans to multi-millionaires who lent money to the party on the whim that they might get a knighthood,” said Kenny.
“Why should our dinner lady members be expected to provide funds to repay loans to multi-millionaire businessmen?”
The union also plans to consult all of its 600,000 members on its affiliation fees paid annually to the Labour Party.
It stepped back, however, from calls to sever all financial and political links with Labour. A motion calling on the GMB to disaffiliate from Labour was withdrawn.
Kenny said it would not be in the union’s interest to disaffiliate saying the “GMB could not work in glorious isolation”.
But in the debate, delegate Damien Green said he was “disillusioned and fed up”. His sentiments were repeatedly expressed by other GMB members throughout the conference.
Delegates were deeply unhappy at the government’s reluctance to tackle big business on issues such as “obscene” bonuses while it curbs pay for low paid workers.
The betrayal of the disabled Remploy workers by the government gave a cutting edge to the general anger of delegates.
James Stribley, a Remploy worker, said, “Last year we trusted Peter Hain when he twice promised consultation over the factory closures. But he lied. We should only support those who support us.”
Alan Mills, ex-convenor for Remploy in St Helens, said, “I am a Labour Party member but I can’t say for how much longer. We simply can’t trust them anymore.”
The conference also passed a motion to give an “ultimatum” to Labour over its failure to implement the Warwick Agreement – the deal reached in 2005 between unions and the party.
The motion said that the union would reconsider its support for Labour if the party refused to implement the agreement.
While Gordon Brown declined to attend the conference, the former GMB press officer and current environment minister Phil Woolas addressed the conference on Monday.
He made a rather ineffectual attempt to play up the threat of the Tories, warning delegates, “Don’t fall into the trap Cameron is laying for you.”
A series of delegates attacked the government from the floor.
Delegate Steve McKenzie summed up the feelings of the conference when he said, “Labour is an absolute disgrace. It is pandering to big business and ignoring ordinary working class people.”
Mary Turner, president of the GMB and one of the union’s representatives on the Labour party national executive, said, “Last year we welcomed an incoming prime minister, and we had great hopes for a renewed period of fairness and justice.
“But the terrible betrayal over the Remploy factories was perhaps the first of many misjudgements.”
As was befitting a Labour minister, Woolas didn’t really answer the questions.
But the GMB has sent a strong message that taking workers for granted at the very least has financial consequences for the Labour Party.