The Communication Workers Union (CWU) conference was set to discuss its political fund as Socialist Worker went to press.
Debate about the relationship between the union and the Labour Party has raged since last year’s national post strike.
Many activists are so enraged by the way the government backed Royal Mail against the union that they want to reconsider funding the party. Some argue to end affiliation to Labour altogether.
Paul Tucker is the political officer of the Romford Amal branch in Essex. He explained to Socialist Worker how in his branch – which has around 2,000 members – more than 200 people decided to stop paying into the political fund in the wake of the national strike because they wanted to stop money going to Labour.
“I can identify the precise moment when many people made that decision – it was after Gordon Brown had appeared at prime minister’s question time and told us to ‘go back to work’.
“During the course of the strike our branch wrote to every local Labour MP and councillor asking them to support us. We didn’t even get one reply.
“Since then the anger with Labour has grown.
“Our branch supports holding a national ballot on whether we fund Labour at the next election if the government does not back off from privatisation of Royal Mail, and does not force the company to honour its commitments to our pensions.”
Gareth Eales is the deputy branch secretary of the Northampton branch. He told Socialist Worker, “There has been a sea change in attitudes towards Labour in the rank and file of the union but it is not often reflected among the leadership, most of whom seem to be little more than apologists for the government.
“Every year we are given more excuses for Labour’s failings. This slavish support has to stop and our union’s leadership must put our members before loyalty to Labour.
“I don’t believe that the union should disaffiliate immediately, but I do think that we need to start the process of consulting our members about our continued affiliation.
“The government should be given three months to respond to our demands over pensions and privatisation. If they do not meet them we should start a national ballot on affiliation.
“It’s not easy but I think there must be an alliance that allows those on the Labour left to work with those on the left outside Labour.”
Sensing the growing mood of hostility to the government the CWU executive put forward its own emergency motion that called a ballot on funding Labour at the next general election.
It also accepted one from London branches that gives the government nine months to change its ways.
Nevertheless, general secretary Billy Hayes and other strong Labour supporters issued repeated warnings to delegates not to break with Labour because it would benefit the Tories.
Speaking to a fringe meeting of CWU Labour supporters, Hayes said, “There is a growing realisation among the middle ground of this union that to break the link with Labour is David Cameron’s position.”
But there was little in his speech that explained why Labour is in such a deep crisis, or how it has managed to lose the votes of five million people since 1997. This “don’t rock the boat” strategy drew sharp criticism from many delegates.
“Labour has declared war on its own supporters, particularly those in the public sector unions,” said Simon Midgley, political officer for the Bradford branch.
“Yet some people think we should stick with Labour no matter what. This will give the Tories more opportunities to win Labour supporters, as they did over post office closures.
“Are we really saying that there are no circumstances in which we should break from Labour, even if they wreck our pensions and privatise our jobs? If that is the case it is a recipe for the kind of demoralisation that will allow the Tories to get in.”
Billy Hayes has mocked those who have attempted to build an organisation to the left of Labour, saying they are doomed to failure.
But the growing anger of working class people with New Labour can be channelled to the left if there is a credible alternative. The trade unions have a critical role in making such a formation a success.