By Martin Smith
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Funds for the Future

This article is over 22 years, 3 months old
New Labour can no longer take the trade unions' money for granted.
Issue 262

For over 100 years the trade union movement has supported the Labour Party both politically and financially. Last year alone trade unions donated £10 million to Labour’s coffers. But, as last month’s Socialist Alliance trade union conference showed, New Labour can no longer take that support for granted. With over 1,000 trade unionists attending, it was the biggest unofficial trade union gathering in over two decades. The key debate was the question of opening up the unions’ political funds to parties that oppose privatisation, defend union rights and protect jobs.

In some senses the Socialist Alliance conference represents just the tip of the iceberg. At this year’s CWU conference in June there are at least eight motions calling on the union to open up the union’s funds to parties other than New Labour. A similar debate will take place at Aslef’s conference. John Edmonds, the general secretary of the GMB, is withholding over £2 million of the union’s funds from Labour over the next four years. Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the CWU, is threatening to withhold £1 million if Labour goes ahead with its plans to privatise the Post Office. And Bob Crow, the left wing general secretary of the RMT, has sent every MP sponsored by the union a questionnaire. In it he asks them a series of questions about their position on privatisation. Bob Crow is threatening to withdraw the union’s funding from those Labour MPs who support Blair’s privatisation plans. The union leaders are reflecting the bitterness found on the shop floor. A recent survey published by the Labour Research Department gives a striking picture of the growing disquiet many trade union members feel towards New Labour. For instance, 75 percent of the 301 union branches in the survey were critical of the unions’ support for the Labour government. One third of these branches were not affiliated to a Constituency Labour Party (CLP)–with 37 having recently cancelled their affiliation because they opposed the party’s policies. The picture was not much better for New Labour among the 195 branches which were affiliated to a CLP. Half of them did not send delegates to CLP meetings, and 59 percent of them had never sent a delegate to any of Labour’s regional forums. The unease with New Labour’s pro-market and anti-union policies grows every day.

A key debate

Serious pressure is building up on the trade union bureaucracy. But not all have criticised New Labour from the left. John Monks, the leader of the TUC, and Bill Morris, the general secretary of the powerful TGWU, have talked about the possibility of backing the Liberal Democrats. Just over 100 years ago the Labour Party was formed in order to break the hold of the two bourgeois parties, the Tories and the Liberals. It was precisely because the trade union bureaucracy wanted an independent voice that the Labour Party was formed. It would be a massive retreat for the trade union movement to give money to the Liberal Democrats.

A brief glance at the Liberal Democrats today should be enough to put off any trade unionist advocating backing them. They support more PFI schemes being introduced into schools and hospitals. In many inner city boroughs the Liberal Democrats have been more than happy to play the race card. During the recent rail strikes Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Don Foster advocated legislation to let passengers sue the rail unions–a move that would have taken the trade union movement back 100 years to the Taff Vale legislation.

The question of democratising the political fund is going to be one of the key debates at a number of trade union conferences this year. Since the formation of the Labour Party trade unionists have had to fight for the right to have a political voice. There have been at least three attempts by the Tories to break the link between the Labour Party and the unions. The last attempt was made by the Thatcher government in 1984. The Tories passed a law requiring unions to ballot their members every ten years to test the desire for their unions to keep a political fund. The move backfired. In the 1985-86 round all 38 unions balloting voted to retain their funds with a yes vote averaging 82 percent. Since then more than a dozen other unions have voted to establish political funds for the first time. Ten years later the unions were forced through the process again. A similar vote was recorded.

Today trade unions are not legally allowed to donate money to a political party out of general funds raised from members’ subscriptions. If unions wish to do so they have to set up a political fund that is funded by a separate subscription. The political fund can be used to finance political parties, or campaigns such as Amnesty International or the Anti Nazi League. Some unions like Natfhe have a political fund but do not donate money to any political party, and a small number have no political fund at all. Socialists should support the right to give money to a political fund and donate money, even if that money continues to go to Labour. The political fund is a rejection of the idea that unions should only deal with economic issues and should not be political. Imagine what it would be like today if the unions had never had a political voice. Unions wouldn’t have been able to campaign against the Vietnam War or the war in Afghanistan, and they wouldn’t have been able to support the fight against the Nazis in Cable Street or Lewisham, or today in Oldham and Burnley. Some activists have argued that individuals should opt out of the political fund. This is not something that socialists should do. It is an individualistic solution to a collective decision taken by workers, and plays directly into the hands of the Tories. More importantly, how can you win workers away from Labour and democratise the fund if you are not paying into it?

Despite Blair’s betrayals there are no signs that workers want to dump their political funds. Repeated union surveys conducted between 1997 and the present show that between 62 and 87 percent of workers believe that it is even more important to have a political voice under Blair. Interestingly in unions like the PCS, which does not have a political fund, activists are campaigning to set one up. The question being raised is not should unions have a political fund, but where should that money go?

One thing needs to made clear. The debate around the political fund is not about disaffiliating from the Labour Party, but about union members democratically deciding where their money should go. This would mean supporting candidates who identify more closely with the union’s aims and objectives. This would, by definition, exclude Tories and Nazis from getting their hands on union money.

Members in unions like the CWU and RMT are calling on their executives to allow branches and regions to hold ballots of the members, to decide where the money goes. If the members vote to stay with Labour then that is where it should go. Members of Aslef are taking the argument one step further. They are calling for a regular ballot of the members, and for the money to be divided up proportionately to the vote each party receives.

This argument is about much more than money. It goes to the heart of the debate about Blair’s neoliberal project. Interestingly, it is not just socialists outside the Labour Party arguing to open up the funds. At last year’s Unison conference delegates who were active members of the Labour Party were some of the key speakers calling for the opening up of the political fund.

There is no doubt that union leaders are horrified by these developments. They are going to fight tooth and nail to stop their members opening up the funds. And this is not just confined to the right wing. Precisely because this question is often raised more sharply in unions controlled by the left, several key left wing general secretaries have attacked the idea of opening up the union’s political fund. For example, Andy Gilchrist of the FBU has launched a sharp debate with those in his union who are calling for the democratisation of their union funds. Billy Hayes of the CWU denounced those in his union who want to open up the funds as ‘wreckers’ and ‘saboteurs’. More surprisingly, Mick Rix of Aslef quoted Lenin to justify sticking with Labour at an Aslef meeting in Edinburgh recently!

Taking on the arguments

There seem to be three main arguments for not opening up the political fund. The first is that those behind the move are trying to break up the union’s political funds. This is clearly not true. Not one single motion received by any union this year calls for the break-up of the political fund. All of them are demanding that the members should be able to decide where their money goes.

The second argument, being used by some in the CWU and the RMT, is that by doing this the unions are falling into a trap. They are doing just what Blair wants them to do. But, despite Blair and Byers’ rhetoric about wanting to break from the unions, the fact is that the unions remain the major financial backers of the Labour Party. Unions and individual union members contribute about 40 percent of Labour’s year on year funding. It would create a massive financial problem for Blair if the unions started to pull their finances. More importantly, if unions or branches began to back left alternatives to New Labour it would push politics in Britain to the left.

Finally, Bill Morris argues that by keeping the link with Labour it forces Blair to listen to the unions. But Blair has consistently ignored the unions. Over the past seven years he has gone out of his way to court big business. Now he is doing deals with the right wing Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to scrap the European Social Chapter.

The debate around the political fund is part of a much wider radicalisation taking place both in the outside world and the trade union movement. As long as Blair pushes ahead with his privatisation plans the bitterness with New Labour is only going to increase. For many there will be only one conclusion–we need a genuine socialist alternative that gives workers a real voice.

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