Socialist Worker

Why won't the trade unions punch their weight?

Tony Blair is facing revolt over foundation hospitals, top-up fees and the war on Iraq. Yet the anger inside the working class finds precious little echo on Labour's National Executive Committee. How can this happen when 12 trade unionists are members

Issue No. 1852

GEORGE Galloway's suspension from the Labour Party is due to be considered by the party's top internal committee on 10 June. The National Executive Committee (NEC) has the power to overturn the suspension, which was issued by the party's unelected general secretary, David Triesman, on behalf of the Blairite hierarchy two weeks ago.

New Labour leaders are likely to use every dirty trick to force the suspension through. Every trade unionist should be demanding that union reps on the committee vote to lift Galloway's suspension. Activists should also give full support to any lobbies that are called.

Labour's executive has been systematically 'reorganised' to reduce the chances of revolt over issues such as privatisation, tuition fees, foundation hospitals and war.

Eleven of the 33 places on the committee are either directly appointed by the Blairite hierarchy or are within its gift. MPs and Euro MPs elect another three members.

Labour Party members elect just six. But the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party still have 12 representatives - over a third of the committee. Instead of consistently opposing Blair's policies, trade union votes have been decisive in allowing him to ram through deeply unpopular decisions. Three issues stand out over the last 18 months - PFI privatisation, keeping Ken Livingstone out of the party, and the war on Iraq.

On each occasion some or all of those union representatives have ignored the feelings of their own members and even voted against the policies of their unions.

Mark Seddon, editor of the left Labour magazine Tribune, and Ann Black tabled a basically anti-war resolution to the committee meeting of 28 January. It said that war on Iraq was not justified on the available evidence.

And later it called for the government 'to desist from joining any pre-emptive military action against that country at the behest of the US'. Mike Griffiths of the GPMU union tabled a counter-proposal. His resolution backed Blair's line that 'in the last resort military action' would be taken. A procedural fix meant the resolution allowing Blair to go to war was taken first.

Every trade union representative there voted for it, ensuring the anti-war position was not voted on. Trade union representatives also swung the balance in the vote in July last year to keep Ken Livingstone out of the party.

Almost every trade union had backed Livingstone to be Labour's candidate for London mayor in the rigged selection process.

When he was blocked, Livingstone stood independently and won with a handsome majority, bigger among trade unionists. For that he was expelled from the party. Those trade union representatives who voted with the leadership last summer to keep it that way were John Gibbins (Amicus), John Hannett (Usdaw), Vernon Hince (who at that time represented the RMT), Cath Speight (Amicus) and Margaret Wall (Amicus).

Those 'unavoidably absent' were Steve Pickering (GMB) and Jimmy Elsby (TGWU). The vote against Livingstone's readmission was just 17 to 13. One of the most glaring examples of the union representatives voting against the policy of their respective unions is over PFI.

In March of last year Mark Seddon and Mary Turner (GMB) put forward a resolution opposing further privatisation through PFI schemes. Nearly every union by that point had policy against PFI. But the national executive voted not to discuss the resolution. The vote was 21 to seven. The seven included Seddon and the two other members of the Grassroots Alliance. Most union representatives voted in defiance of their unions' policies to allow Blair to carry on ripping up services.

The excuses and sleight of hand some of the trade union reps have turned to are staggering. Margaret Wall, for example, routinely stands up at the MSF-Amicus union conference and refuses to say which way she voted on Labour's highest body. She claims she is not there to represent MSF. But every union member has the right to expect their officials to stick by democratically agreed policies.

Another tendency is to absent from votes that might possibly go against Blair. 'He has a very poor voting record' was the identical comment from senior figures in the CWU and GPMU unions about John Keggie and Mike Griffiths.

Manoeuvres about Galloway

AS OF Friday of last week Labour's general secretary, David Triesman, who is meant to be holding an investigation into George Galloway, had not even contacted him.

Galloway has written to Triesman about the delay and questioned whether it is designed to string out proceedings until after the NEC meeting. That would likely leave the suspension in place past the deadline for nominations for Labour candidate in the new Glasgow Central constituency. Galloway's own Westminster seat in Glasgow is disappearing due to boundary changes.

He is the favoured candidate among Labour activists for the Glasgow Central nomination but will be barred from standing if he remains suspended from the party.

The timing of New Labour's attack on the most prominent anti-war MP already betrays a stitch-up. Socialist Worker has learnt that Triesman spent thousands of pounds of Labour Party money consulting lawyers about the date of the suspension. George Galloway is charged with 'bringing the party into disrepute' in two television interviews over six weeks ago.

Triesman did not act immediately on what he claims are serious allegations. That would have meant provoking an even bigger revolt among Labour activists and voters in the run-up to the 1 May elections. On that evening, not a single elected member of the NEC knew of any plans to move against Galloway.

Triesman used his authority to act on behalf of the NEC and suspended George Galloway on 6 May. When Galloway's case is heard by the full NEC meeting, it will be an uphill battle to get it to overturn the suspension, which has caused outrage inside and outside the Labour Party.

'It is very difficult to keep tabs on what goes on at the NEC'

'OVER THE years I have seen some trade union representatives vote on key issues against the policies of their unions,' Mark Seddon told Socialist Worker. 'At the same time the unions complain of a lack of influence in the party. They are cutting off their nose to spite their face.'

It is very hard to hold the union representatives to account, especially as most of them are not prominent union leaders and therefore their activities are not so well known. The general secretary of the RMT, Bob Crow, and the union's executive, for example, were led to believe that Mick Cash, an assistant general secretary, had voted for the anti-war resolution in January.

It was only when Helen Liddell, one of Blair's enforcers, boasted that not one trade unionist on the NEC had voted against the leadership's line on the war that the truth came out. There is now a motion to the RMT's annual conference in July to remove Cash as the representative.

'But it is very difficult even to keep tabs on people,' a senior GPMU activist in London told Socialist Worker. 'Mike Griffiths told us he was for overturning Livingstone's expulsion. But the London committee and officials still kept a close eye on him. Even if you find out they have done something that conflicts with the union's policy it is usually too late to do anything about it.'

Pressure can work. John Keggie let it be known that he 'didn't want to vote for' overturning Livingstone's expulsion, but he had to because of pressure inside his CWU union. 'Holding the representatives to account is part of the wider issue of democracy in the union,' says Jon Rogers, a Labour Party member and secretary of Unison in Lambeth council, south London.

It is also just one aspect of the question that is raging among trade unionists and many others - how do we ensure effective political representation?

Time for confrontation with Blairites

IMAGINE THE effect if the 12 trade union reps allied consistently with the three left wingers in the constituency section. They could turn the NEC meetings upside down. The Blairites would be always fearful they might lose a vote. The NEC has not been allowed to discuss some issues, such as top-up fees and foundation hospitals. A block of 15 could make the meetings impossible unless such discussions took place.

Many trade union leaders say that the unions must stick with Labour to 'keep their influence' over the party. If that is meant seriously then it involves the union reps confronting Blair on issue over issue. If they don't do this then their talk of the 'value of the link' is so much hot air.

Socialists inside and outside the Labour Party agree that union reps on Labour's NEC should stand up for union policy. But everyone also agrees that the scope for union influence inside the Labour Party has narrowed considerably. The recent successes of the Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Alliance puncture the idea that we should put all our eggs in one basket - relying on unaccountable union officials to influence a party that is committed to big business.

The demand to open up trade union political funds to back candidates who do stand for union policies is gaining ground in every union. That would mean democratising the funds so Labour does not have a monopoly and support can be given to, for example, the socialists who did so well in elections to the Scottish Parliament or in the council elections, where the Socialist Alliance won a seat.

The conferences of the TSSA, a traditionally moderate rail union, and the Bectu media union have already shown signs of the mood for democratising union funds.

Who has the vote?

THE MEMBERS of Labour's NEC are:
Leader Tony Blair MP
Deputy leader John Prescott MP
Treasurer Jimmy Elsby
Government John Reid MP
Government Helen Liddell MP
Government Ian McCartney MP
General secretary David Triesman
European Parliamentary Labour Party Leader Gary Titley MEP
Young Labour Jonny Reynolds
Trade unions John Gibbins (AEEU-Amicus) Mike Griffiths (GPMU) John Hannett (Usdaw) Mick Cash (RMT) Diana Holland (TGWU) John Keggie (CWU) Maggie Jones (Unison) Steve Pickering (GMB) Nancy Coull (Unison) Cath Speight (AEEU-Amicus) Mary Turner (GMB) Margaret Wall (MSF-Amicus)
Socialist societies Dianne Hayter
Constituency Labour Party Ann Black Mark Seddon Christine Shawcroft (the three supporters of the left wing Grassroots Alliance) Shahid Malik Tony Robinson Ruth Turner
Labour councillors Sir Jeremy Beecham Sally Powell
MPs and MEPs Helen Jackson MP Dennis Skinner MP Michael Cashman MEP

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Article information

Sat 24 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1852
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