THE SOCIALIST Alliance is to provide a focus for a debate which is raging inside the trade union movement. The issue is whether the unions' political fund should go solely to the Labour Party or whether, because of Labour's right wing policies, it should also be open for union members to give money to other parties.
The Socialist Alliance, the organisation which brings together socialists to the left of Labour in England, has called a conference, 'The political fund - where should it go?' for Saturday 16 March in London. The debate has already been thrown into sharp focus this year. The big GMB union has announced it has cut its funding for Labour by a further £250,000. The move is in protest at New Labour's privatisation drive. The union will have slashed £2 million from the money it gives Labour by the end of this parliament.
GMB leader John Edmonds has also announced that the union could oppose Labour candidates who support privatisation in the May council elections. Edmonds said, 'My union has supported Labour candidates in every election since it was founded more than 100 years ago. But no longer can the party take the support of our members for granted. My members - nurses, teachers and other public sector staff - worked tirelessly to ensure the election of a Labour government last year. And they did not do so to see a Labour government - a LABOUR government - introduce the same privatisation policies forced on us by the Tories.'
Henry Rajch, a GMB shop steward in Barnsley council, told Socialist Worker: 'This feeling about New Labour is not just confined to the leadership. The debate is raging through the union and felt by every member. Whenever I go to regional or other GMB meetings, you find a well of unhappiness against New Labour. It is not uncommon to hear people saying they are leaving the Labour Party at meetings - particularly in the face of such a range of attacks like privatisation. My local branch has already stopped giving money to the Labour Party constituency branch in Barnsley. Now Edmonds' statement opens up the debate about the trade union funds to Labour even more. Every GMB member can raise the issue and try to get sponsorship and backing for the Socialist Alliance conference. We want to challenge Labour, but we also want to discuss what sort of challenge to Labour, and to put the case for the Socialist Alliance.'
It's not just the GMB which is discussing this issue. Last year Britain's biggest union, UNISON, voted to review its political fund to Labour. The firefighters' FBU union conference voted to open its political fund to candidates other than New Labour. The issue has also caused a big debate inside the communication workers' CWU union.
In 2000 the CWU voted to break links with the Labour Party if it continued with its privatisation policies. Agitation around the issue has intensified as the government presses ahead with privatisation and job losses. The issue of the political fund strikes at the heart of workers' discontent with New Labour.
A recent survey by the Labour Research organisation of over 300 trade union branches found that nearly three quarters were critical of the relationship between Labour and affiliated unions.
Even the minority of union branches who wanted the link with Labour strengthened were highly critical of some of the government's policy. In a separate survey the political fund was found to be one of the major issues of concern to trade unionists.
This feeling opens the door for this conference to be built widely.
The Scottish Socialist Party and the Welsh Socialist Alliance have been invited to co-sponsor the conference.
THE POLITICAL FUND: where should it go?
Join the debate Register with the Socialist Alliance on 020 7791 3138, or write to Socialist Alliance, Wickham House, 10 Cleveland Way, London E1 4TR. Registration is £4 waged or £2 unwaged. You can also find details on www.socialistalliance.net or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Sat 16 March 11am-4pm, South Camden Community School, Charrington Street, London NW1
An appeal from Matt Wrack
'THE DEBATE over the political fund is one of the most important issues facing trade unionists at this time. The way many trade union leaders deal with the political fund takes no account of the views of rank and file trade unionists who are massively discontented with New Labour. The debate really opened up last year, particularly in the FBU and UNISON, which allows the opportunity for the political fund to be democratised.
The Socialist Alliance conference is a brilliant opportunity to discuss the way forward. This conference allows rank and file trade unionists to organise together to discuss how we can put our national leaderships under pressure. It is also a great chance to bring union activists together to organise how to fight privatisation and job cuts.
The Socialist Alliance has initiated the conference. But in the FBU the debate involved a much wider layer of people, including both former and current Labour Party activists. I hope this wide range of people will be repeated at the Socialist Alliance conference.
I would urge every trade unionist and every union branch to debate the issue and to come along to the conference.'
Firefighter MATT WRACK, who proposed the motion on opening up the political fund at the FBU conference last year
What you can do to build the conference
- If you are a trade unionist, sign up yourself now. You do not have to be delegated by a union branch to go.
- Raise the conference among your workmates and colleagues, and urge them to sign up for the conference.
- Get a motion drawn up for your next union branch, shop stewards committee or other workplace meeting.
- Every Socialist Alliance member and group should draw up a list of local workplaces in their area to visit and leaflet. Ask to see union reps and tell them about the conference.
- Try to get trade union branches, and individual branch secretaries, shop stewards and reps to sponsor the conference.
- London trade unionists should come to a mobilising meeting on Thursday 24 January at 7.30pm at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square.
Prepare for May election
THE conference provides an excellent springboard for the Socialist Alliance's challenge to the pro-business mainstream parties in the May local elections. The Socialist Alliance is planning to contest many council ward seats in the elections which take place across England on Thursday 2 May.
Every Socialist Alliance group should now be deciding where to stand and democratically selecting candidates to stand on a principled socialist platform. The conference gives an opportunity for every Socialist Alliance to dig deeper roots in the trade union movement.
Bristol Socialist Alliance, for example, has organised a meeting on 6 February on 'Should the unions fund New Labour?' The speakers include former Labour NEC member Liz Davies and Bernie Beechgood, a local FBU branch secretary and Labour supporter.
All national and local membership of the Socialist Alliance is due for renewal this January. National membership is £2 a month for those waged and 50p per month unwaged, or £24 and £6 a year.