Socialist Worker

Unions slash cash to New Labour

Reports from the RMT and CWU conferences

Issue No. 1807

TWO MAJOR trade unions will cut their funding to New Labour after overwhelming votes from union conference delegates. The rail workers' RMT has 57,000 members. Delegates at its conference voted unanimously for an 80 percent cut in the money the union gives to the Labour Party. It is the biggest percentage cut in Labour affiliation payments made by any union so far.

The reduction from £112,000 to £20,000 hurled leading Labour Party figures into a spin. In the same week delegates at the conference of postal workers' CWU union, with 285,000 members, also voted over its funding to New Labour. They voted that 'donations to the Labour Party should be reduced', and that 'the CWU shall affiliate to the Labour Party on the basis of the minimum amount'. The union members agreed the money saved should be used for 'political campaigning around issues of concern to the CWU'.

These two conferences have confirmed the general trend among trade unionists to challenge the automatic funding to New Labour. The RMT conference decision was coupled with a move to withdraw funding from John Prescott and other Labour MPs who have refused to agree to support four central RMT policies. These include support for rail renationalisation. Instead the RMT is sponsoring a new group of 14 Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Alice Mahon.

In a speech that drew frequent applause RMT general secretary Bob Crow told delegates, 'If they want our money they will have to roll their sleeves up and fight as hard as I do for renationalisation of rail. I feel absolutely betrayed by the New Labour leadership.'

That feeling came from delegates too. It was so strong that some argued for immediately disaffiliating from the Labour Party. There was no formal debate on democratising the political fund, but there was a general mood that union money should be used to back people who would fight for the union's policies.

Bob Crow warned that funding the new group of Labour MPs was the 'last chance saloon' for the Labour Party. The Guardian noted last week that some of these MPs have said they will not be voting in parliament against tube privatisation. Bob Crow added that if the Labour government pressed ahead with, for example, tube privatisation then 'next year there will be a debate on whether we are in the Labour Party or not'.

At the CWU conference a motion calling for disaffiliation from Labour for a year was supported by around a fifth of the conference. It is likely that very many more would have backed the motions that were due to be discussed calling for the union's political fund to be democratised. It would have meant members voting, and the fund would have been distributed according to those votes.

So some would have gone to Labour, and some to other parties that support the union's policies. But these motions, which were at the end of the agenda, were never discussed. Speakers did take the opportunity in the debates to make clear their anger at Blair's policies. Pete Boswell from Oxfordshire said:

'I take no pleasure in calling for a break from Labour. I have been a member of the Labour Party for 20 years. I remember 1997. I was jubilant that we were back after the Tory years. Six months later the government started to sell off parts of the Post Office, and I began to have doubts. Now everyone can see the Labour Party has changed. The trade unions still believe in justice, but the Labour Party doesn't.'

Derek Durkin from Scotland No 2 branch added, 'We can't continue to finance a war machine that is gunning down our members. 'There are tens of thousands of our union members paying the political levy while the party that it funds is preparing to condemn them to the dole queue.'

The RMT and CWU conference votes to reduce funding to the Labour Party shows the disillusionment with New Labour runs deep. Despite New Labour's best hopes, the issue of the political fund has not gone away.

Delegates oppose war and privatisation

THE RMT and CWU conferences raised wider issues they are angry with New Labour over. At the RMT conference union members spoke passionately against the government's scapegoating of asylum seekers. Mick Skiggs from Portsmouth said, 'If international finance can cross borders without restrictions, then why can't people cross borders in search of work? 'The ludicrous thing is that these people are not allowed to work even if they are granted asylum.'

The conference agreed to back the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers and to encourage RMT branches to do the same. RMT delegates voted unanimously to continue the union's affiliation to the Defend Council Housing campaign. The RMT conference also called for a joint union campaign against cuts and privatisation, culminating in a national day of action in defence of the public sector.

Practically all the delegates at the CWU conference backed an anti-war motion that called for a campaign by the TUC against the 'involvement of UK forces in any bombing that may result from the US extending its 'war against terrorism'.' Delegate Gary Watt attacked the 'breathtaking hypocrisy of George Bush, who talks about human rights and democracy but backs repressive regimes whenever it suits US interests'.

There was similar support for a motion demanding that United Nations resolutions on Palestine should be implemented. A Birmingham delegate told the conference that the proposed 'peace plans' for the Middle East 'do not address the refugee question and are simply a repackaging of military occupation'.

He was applauded when he said that the theft of Palestinian land by the Israeli state was the root cause of the violence in the region. The conference later voted unanimously to affiliate to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and gave a standing ovation to a speaker from the Palestinian trade unions.

There was not a single speech against a motion that condemned the 'laissez faire economics embraced by bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund'.

It went on to instruct the executive to 'support legitimate campaigns that place the needs of the people of the world ahead of the profits of global capitalism'. Alan Dawson from north west London told the conference that working people across the world should fight to 'globalise trade unionism and socialism'.

Resistance debated too

RMT members on Arriva trains are continuing their strikes over pay, and London Underground workers are being balloted for action over safety. Around 180,000 Royal Mail workers start their ballot this week in defence of 7,000 CWU members at Romec who are being transferred over to a private company.

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Article information

Sat 6 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1807
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