Socialist Worker

Labour wants union cash, but not unions

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2390

By 28 votes to two Labour’s national executive committee last week endorsed the package of “reforms” put forward by party leader Ed Miliband.

This does not mean the end of the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions. In however distorted and twisted a way, the party retains a link with the unions.

Labour has never, and will never, stand up properly for working class people or be a genuinely socialist party. But it’s not the same as the Tories.

Miliband backed off from any attempt to reduce the unions’ share of the vote at Labour conferences. 

Thirty years ago the unions controlled 90 percent of the vote at conference. This was cut to 70 percent in 1992, and is now 50 percent. Going much further would have triggered a serious row, so Miliband has retreated—at least for now.

The union block vote does not inherently help the left. For many years it was used to defeat the left of the party. But Miliband’s changes are far-reaching and further dilute Labour’s union links. 

Instead of the unions affiliating large numbers of their members to the party unless they opt-out, trade unionists will have to make a two-phase individual choice. 

First they must decide to pay money to Labour and then they must declare they support the party. Inevitably, given the entirely justified lack of enthusiasm for Labour among most trade unionists, the number affiliated to the party will fall.

In a few years time these diminished numbers could be used as the basis for undermining union influence even more. 

The Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire commented, “It’s time for the trade unions to march proudly out of Labour’s front door instead of being slowly bundled out of the back. 

“Rather than enduring a thousand indignities, organised labour should take its money and people and abandon institutional links with the party.

“However Ed Miliband dresses up these reforms, the truth is he wants union cash but not the unions.”

The measures now go to a special conference on 1 March. But there won’t be much discussion. Amendments won’t be allowed. Nor will voting for parts of the proposals and not others.

The whole conference will last only two hours, and much of that time is set aside for set piece speeches. That’s what Labour’s shiny new democracy looks like.

The changes will mean that unions are likely to have up to £4 million left in their political funds that would previously have been used to pay affiliation fees to Labour.

Miliband’s calculation will be that the union leaders will still hand over most or all of this to the party through various means. 

Of course it does offer the prospect that the unions could operate a “payment by results” scheme. Labour would receive some cash if it implemented a union policy, and not if it didn’t. 

This would be a good debate to raise at this year’s union conferences. But it will take a battle because adopting such a policy would take far more resolve than most union leaders have ever demonstrated.   

However, that’s not the end of the debate. It’s also possible to argue that the money should be used for political campaigning instead of being shovelled into Labour. 

It could help fight fascism, or build the battle against the bedroom tax, or organise to stop the assault on the NHS. Rather use it for active struggle than the dead-end of Labour. 

Socialist Worker is for unions that engage politically and seek to take up all the issues of exploitation, oppression and international struggle.

And as Labour leaders turn on the unions there needs to be a serious discussion of working class political representation.

It’s clearer than ever that Labour won’t deliver. Unions should be debating the alternative.


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