'MOST FBU members are sick to death with New Labour,' says Paisley firefighter Billy Coates. 'I'd say the majority in Scotland are now withdrawing from funding the Labour Party. On my station it's 100 percent.'
He adds, 'There are decent Labour Party people. But their party is plumbing new depths.' A similar message comes from firefighter Ian Foulkes in Liverpool. He says, 'It's hard to put into words just how upset and angry people feel. It's one thing getting treated like this by the Tories. It's another when it comes from a Labour government that trade unionists fund and helped to get elected. On the stations members are putting it dead straightforwardly. Why should we give money to people who are treating us like this?'
Firefighters are discussing what they should do with the political fund if it does not all go to Labour. Ian says, 'I think we should be able to fund socialists. We should reject the blackmail that the Labour Party might not like that. We don't much like being abused by Labour Party ministers.'
The government's assault on the firefighters has produced a wave of requests by the union's members to opt out of the part of their dues that goes to the Labour Party. Even before this there was a debate throughout the trade union movement on relations between the unions and the Labour Party. Now there is a torrent of ideas and debate.
Activists in every union affiliated to the Labour Party are discussing the same issues. Big unions like the GMB and CWU cut their donations to Labour this year. But the debate is about more than just reducing money to the Labour Party. It is about what kind of political representation working class people should have, and what socialist forces unions should back. The issue will not go away.
New Labour remains hugely dependent on union funds. Why should it get the cash when it tramples on what the unions stand for?
Around 40 percent of Labour's year on year funding comes from trade unions and individual union members. In last year's election campaign union donations made up half of Labour's spending.
New Labour's dependence on union funds has grown since. All donations to political parties over £5,000 have to be registered with the official Electoral Commission. The most recent such accounts registered for the Labour Party are for the three months from July to September this year.
They show that donations to the Labour Party nationally over that time amounted to £2.59 million. Of that, £2.3 million came from trade unions, 89 percent of the total. At election times the party is dependent on resources and activists from unions. The Labour Party itself admits of the 2001 election campaign, 'Union head offices set up telephone banks to provide support. The ISTC [steel union] head office was used to run the whole of the national postal vote operation.
'In the regions, trade union telephone banks were widely used by regional Labour Party offices and constituencies to help identify Labour voters and then again to turn them out on the day. It was at constituency level that union involvement in the campaign had the highest impact, especially as there were fewer activists than in 1997. Trade union activists helped knock on doors, run street stalls and deliver leaflets.'
It's a bloody cheek to take all this and then assault trade unions. If unions pulled funds from New Labour it would cause Blair huge problems. If those funds were used to support socialists inside and outside Labour's ranks, like the Socialist Alliance and SSP, it would push the whole of politics in Britain to the left, not the right.
Continuing the debate
'I SPOKE at the FBU conference this year in favour of opening up the political fund so it could be used to back socialist candidates who were not in the Labour Party. I contributed to the debate then as a Labour Party member. I am not a member now. I sent back the final reminder to renew my membership a couple of weeks ago. Our general secretary, Andy Gilchrist, and the leadership of our union argued strongly at that conference back in May not to open up the fund. They said such a move would lead to the Labour Party disaffiliating us and that we would lose political influence. They also said we should not be diverted from pursuing our £30,000 pay claim. Most delegates went along with the leadership.
'Now the pay campaign itself has revealed just what the government is prepared to do to trade unionists. It has forced open the question among larger numbers of people about whether we should be funding people who attack us. Soon the overwhelming majority of FBU members in Kent will have opted out of the part of the political levy that goes to the Labour Party. People have just had enough of it. It leaves open the question of what kind of political representation we need. I think there are good chances for the Socialist Alliance down here to present their case. They have been on the picket lines and do support us. That's not true of the Labour Party as a party.'
Mark Simmons, FBU member, Kent
Workers need political voice
SOME PEOPLE argue that if you don't like the current Labour leadership or government you should work inside Labour to change it. Firefighters' FBU union leader Andy Gilchrist wrote last week that what was needed now was 'a patient struggle to change the Labour Party from within' before 'New Labour destroys Real Labour'. The worst possible strategy for challenging Blair and New Labour today is to confine the struggle to one within the Labour Party.
What is needed is to strengthen those forces in society which are prepared to challenge New Labour's agenda. By far the most important way of doing that is to back protests, strikes and social movements like the anti-war movement.
Alongside this unions should back those MPs or organisations, inside or outside the Labour Party, that stand up to New Labour and back trade union policies. As well as such MPs there are also many individuals, organisations and parties outside Labour's ranks who back union policies and workers' struggles. Backing all such forces is the best way for unions to build an effective challenge to New Labour.
Some trade unionists fear that changing the unions' political funds could open the door to the Liberals, Tories or even Nazis getting money. In fact every major union has clear policies against racism and fascism. So those union leaders who raise the spectre of the Nazis getting union funds are being deliberately dishonest. Only organisations which stand in line with the union's basic policies can get backing. Socialists who want to democratise the unions' political funds oppose giving money to Tories or Liberals.
It is pro New Labour leaders like John Monks and his anointed successor Brendan Barber who invited Liberal leader Charles Kennedy to speak at this year's TUC. It is a bit rich of the same people to use the prospect of backing the Liberals to argue against democratising the political fund. What is needed now is for unions to say they will not fund those who attack workers and unions, whether they are Liberal, Tory or New Labour.
The debate about the fund may encourage some to think about dumping the political fund altogether or just opting out of paying it. It was a great step forward when unions established political funds. In the ballots that have taken place twice in the last 15 years union members have overwhelmingly voted to keep such funds.
Only the bosses would benefit from a situation where unions confine themselves to economic issues and business candidates dominate politics. Workers' collective organisations, the unions, should have a voice in politics, to be able to back political campaigns and candidates.
In some unions, such as the FBU, people can opt out of that part of the political fund which goes to New Labour, and many are doing precisely that. That still leaves the question of what the union's political funds should be used for - how the union makes its collective voice felt in politics. An argument is needed inside the unions for the political fund only to go to people and parties who the unions' members decide back their interests.
'There is a difference between the political levy and money going to Labour. We do want a political levy. We do want to be a political union. It means standing up over issues here and internationally. There is a danger that people could get so frustrated that they just say forget politics. But I think people are becoming more political. Before the strike people had little understanding of the way the union worked, the link with Labour and so on. Now people are debating it seriously.'
Adrian Clarke, FBU member, Cambridgeshire
What we think
Support those who stand up for workers
WORKERS NEED political representation, but they aren't getting it from New Labour. Blair takes the money and uses it to fund a party which attacks workers and which is driving us towards war. Union political funds should no longer be tied to New Labour. Instead members should decide democratically who deserves backing. Some might want money to go to socialists inside the Labour Party, like George Galloway or Jeremy Corbyn.
But others would want to fund socialists and socialist organisations outside Labour's ranks. They include the Scottish Socialist Party and, in England and Wales, the Socialist Alliance. Why shouldn't union members be able to decide, for example, that the Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan, who stood with the firefighters and opposes war, should get funds instead?
In London the Socialist Alliance's Paul Foot stood for mayor of Hackney against a New Labour candidate who stands for privatisation and cuts. Why couldn't unions back the socialist?
In every union the debate opening up is about the whole future of the relation between the unions and the Labour government. The conclusion of that debate should be 'no funds for New Labour, but backing for socialists'.
Whether those socialists are inside the Labour Party or in other organisations should be irrelevant. What matters is that the union's members decide they deserve support because they stand up for workers' interests.
Every union activist should be moving motions to their union conferences which call for changing the way the political fund is used. We definitely want a union fund, but one that gives a political voice to workers' interests, not just New Labour. We say democratise the fund and use it to fund socialists.