Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

New Labour, the unions & the political funds debate

In the trade union conference season now under way, the unions’ links with the Labour Party have become a key issue. The Socialist Alliance has contributed to this debate with a recently published pamphlet, Whose Money is it Anyway? CLIVE HEEMSKERK, a former member of the Socialist Alliance national executive, reviews its arguments.

EARLY THIS MARCH Tony Blair launched a 300-page pamphlet designed to win support amongst public sector workers for his ‘reform programme’ for public services, including a growing involvement of the private sector. This ambitious aim was somewhat undermined, however, when on the same day the results leaked out of a government commissioned report on how private contractors achieve their ‘efficiency savings’.

Not surprisingly the report confirmed that the ‘entrepreneurial skills’ brought in by private companies come in the form of cuts in staffing, lower pay and reduced terms and conditions for transferred workers. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general workers union, denounced Blair for "bowing down to big business" in his determination to hand over public services to private vultures (Guardian, 8 March).

The Socialist Alliance pamphlet, Whose Money is it Anyway?, authored by a regional official of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Matt Wrack, in its early chapters offers further illustrations of New Labour’s service to big business interests. "The party which has traditionally received the bulk of its support from working-class people", it concludes, "the party created and funded by the trade unions, has become the main vehicle for further attacks on working people and particularly on public services". (p3) The working class is effectively disenfranchised.

But this wasn’t always the case. One chapter gives a quick sketch of how the Labour Party was born, in 1900, as the product of growing sections of workers looking to politically express their collective interests against the capitalist class and their political representatives, the Liberal and Conservative parties. Prior to this there had been some union officials elected as Liberal candidates, a ‘Lib-Labism’ underpinned by the thinking "that Labour could achieve representation as part of the Liberal Party". (p4) "These ideas", however, "increasingly came into conflict with the experience of growing numbers of workers" of the capitalist character of the Liberal Party, culminating in the moves to establish the Labour Representation Committee, renamed as the Labour Party in 1906.

The pamphlet correctly records that the formation of the Labour Party was an important step forward. Although the arguments are not clearly stated in Whose Money? an independent party bringing workers together to struggle and discuss collectively impels different sections to move beyond their own particular interests to develop a broader class consciousness. This is necessary both for the task of ending capitalism and the building of a new, socialist society. The Labour Party was a ‘capitalist-workers party’, with a leadership at the top which reflected the outlook of the capitalist class but with a working class base. With such a base of support, and a structure through which the unions could move to challenge the leadership and threaten the capitalists’ interests, it was always a potentially unreliable tool for the ruling class. That is why Labour governments in the past, in 1924 and 1929-31 as well as the last Labour government of 1974-79, while reluctantly tolerated as a means of holding the working class in check, were simultaneously undermined and eventually brought down by the capitalists when they could no longer accomplish that task.

The attitude of the majority of the ruling class to Blair’s New Labour government, however, is entirely different, reflecting the fact that the Labour Party has now been transformed into another capitalist party. It is on this fundamental question, however, the character of the Labour Party today, that the Socialist Alliance pamphlet falls down.

Tactics and strategy

WHOSE MONEY? ARGUES that "the working class today still needs an independent political voice. The question is how the political funds can be used to build one". (p6) Yet this evades the central question being raised in the union debates: is the Labour Party still capable of being ‘reclaimed’ as that voice?

Describing the ‘Blair Project’ as an ‘attempt’ to "reverse the decision of 1900, that working people needed a separate political organisation to represent their interests", it refers to the ‘aim’ of the Blairites as being "the creation of a US-style political system where both main parties are clearly identified with big business and the unions are merely seen as one ‘interest group’ among many". (p7) "The Blair Revolution", the pamphlet continues, is the ‘process’ not of "modernising the Labour Party but of taking it back a hundred years". But nowhere is a clear conclusion drawn: has the ‘attempt’ been successful, the ‘process’ completed?

If so, then all the tactical questions relating to the political funds debate should revolve around the task of drawing the trade unions from the New Labour prison to play their part in the re-establishment of working class political representation, the formation of a new workers’ party. If the Socialist Alliance believes, however, that the Labour Party can be reclaimed as a vehicle to fight for workers’ interests, then that also needs to be openly stated when tactical issues are discussed. Clearly, while no social formation is fixed for all time, or totally discards all its old characteristics while its new features develop, a categorisation has to be made.

This becomes clear when Whose Money? takes up the response of the union leaders to Blairism. Trade union officials "have criticised Blair for his attack on public sector workers as ‘wreckers’," the pamphlet says, "but they continue to tell us that there is no alternative and that therefore Labour is the only party the unions can endorse... If they were serious, this argument would mean that they have a responsibility to wage a serious fight within the Labour Party for policies that the unions support. Unfortunately, the union representatives on Labour’s National Executive have been some of the most loyal Blairites going. What is the point of electing trade union delegates onto Labour’s executive if they subsequently ignore the policies of their own union at every opportunity?" (pp10-11)

But isn’t this the wrong question? Shouldn’t the union leaders be compelled to explain what the point is of sending delegates to Labour Party conferences etc, if the changed structures of the Labour Party have removed all realistic possibilities of the unions determining the direction of the party? The unions have just 30 votes out of 144 at Labour’s National Policy Forums, for example, the ‘filter’ through which all policy decisions pass before they are ‘debated’ at the annual conference. At the conference the unions share just 50% of the total votes with other affiliated organisations (such as the Co-operative Party), down from 90% in the past.

In fact to speak in this context of ‘the unions’ as a block who are ‘not fighting’ inside the Labour Party, provides an excuse to not take independent political action for precisely those union leaders who criticise Tony Blair but at the same time defend the Labour link. At February’s Scottish Labour Party conference the votes of Labour’s biggest union affiliate, Amicus (the new union resulting from the merger of the engineering union, the AEEU, and the MSF manufacturing, science and finance union), were, alongside local party delegates, sufficient to outvote all the public sector unions on a policy document endorsing private involvement in public services. The train drivers’ union, ASLEF, ‘fought’ to table an anti-war resolution at Labour’s 2001 October conference but it never reached the conference floor. The rail and maritime workers union, the RMT, has not had enough votes to get even a debate on tube privatisation. Are the leaders of the smaller, often more left-wing, unions – and the Socialist Alliance – really saying that it is necessary to wait until Amicus and other right-wing unions are ‘reclaimed’ as organisations fighting for workers’ interests, before fire-fighters, rail workers, postal workers etc, can address the issue of their political representation? And what of the non-Labour Party affiliated unions, such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the PCS civil service union?

What is more important, however, even than the structural changes that have blocked off the old democratic channels that existed in the Labour Party, is the changed perception of ‘New Labour’ amongst ordinary trade union members and wider layers of society. The pamphlet concedes that if a serious attempt were made to ‘change the direction’ of the Labour Party by the unions, it would mean "organising a huge campaign" (p16). "A massive industrial and political campaign waged by the unions and involving tens of thousands of members" and service users, for example, would be necessary to put a stop to Labour’s privatisation plans. (p16) But what would the ‘political’ side of this campaign be? Are there really ‘tens of thousands’ of union members and others prepared to join the Labour Party in order to ‘reclaim’ it, if only an appeal were made to them to do so by the John Edmonds, Dave Prentis (the UNISON public sector workers’ union general secretary), Andy Gilchrist (the FBU general secretary) etc?

The Newcastle city branch of UNISON recently surveyed 3,000 of its 7,000 members and discovered that only 30 were members of the Labour Party. Although more paid the political levy to UNISON’s Affiliated Political Fund, which finances the Labour Party, levy-payers can not participate in the Labour Party unless they join as individuals. The RMT is consequently having great difficulties finding "members who are eligible to be delegated to attend Labour Party events" according to its London Labour Party regional committee representative, Diana Udall (Labour Left Briefing, March 2002). And "those who do attend", she conceded, "wonder why they were there as they are allowed very little input by the party machine".

The emptying out of activists in the Labour Party is strikingly revealed in the declining votes for the ‘ordinary members’ representatives on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), including the anti-leadership Grassroots Alliance candidates. As recently as 1999 Mark Seddon, the editor of the left newspaper, Tribune, polled 52,699 votes in the NEC elections. By 2001 this had fallen to 22,559, a loss of 30,000 left-Labour voting members in two years. Yet Whose Money? speaks of the "many people who are currently Labour Party members but who are angry at the policies of the government" who absolutely ‘must’ be involved if "a serious challenge to Blairism" is to be mounted. (p16) This is to look to the residues of the past rather than the profound shift in consciousness that is beginning to develop.

The broad disenchantment that exists with New Labour was revealed in last year’s general election, most significantly in the unprecedented mass abstention, particularly in the working-class Labour ‘heartlands’ and amongst young voters. The recently published British Social Attitudes survey showed that only 16% of voters in June 2001 thought that there were significant differences between Labour and the Tories, the first time since such surveys have been conducted that less than one third thought this way. (The Economist, 16 February). Yet abstention did not mean a refusal to engage in political activity: 24% of those aged 18-24 who said that they did not vote in 2001, had previously taken part in a protest march or had written to their MP. (The Guardian, 4 July 2001) How could they be convinced of the need to ‘reclaim the Labour Party’?

The unavoidable question: what alternative?

THE SOCIALIST PARTY believes that Blair has succeeded in transforming New Labour into a capitalist party. A new mass workers’ party is necessary, uniting together trade unionists, unorganised workers, socialists, young people, oppressed groups, environmental and community campaigners, as the only way to ensure that ‘the working class today can achieve an independent political voice’. The role the unions and their political funds should be playing to build one is the real question to be addressed.

In this context many of the proposals in the Socialist Alliance pamphlet should be supported. The sub-title of Whose Money?, ‘the case for democratising the unions political funds’, however, is misleading. With some exceptions – in UNISON, for example, the Affiliated Political Fund is not subject to democratic control by the union’s annual conference – rank-and-file union members have no more or less say over political funds than they have over the union structures generally. It is an unnecessary exaggeration to assert that in every union the rank-and-file "have no real say about how the political funds are used... ordinary members don’t even have the right to hold such debates" (p17). Delegates to the 2000 Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) conference, for example, voted against the leadership to stop a £200,000 rise in the political levy to fund Labour’s general election campaign and censured the national treasurer for attempting to prevent branch backing for Ken Livingstone’s London mayoral campaign. Nevertheless, all practical steps to ‘free up’ the funds should be vigorously pursued.

Context, however, determines much. The idea that "unions should draw up a set of criteria, based on the policies of each union, to decide who to support" (p11) has recently been adopted by the RMT – following Bob Crow’s election as union general secretary – which will now only fund 14 MPs who support the union’s anti-privatisation policy. The pro-Labour link FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist has also backed such moves but precisely because they do not necessarily "loosen the union-party link" (Guardian, 22 February). They can also, in fact, lend support to the idea that the attacks of capitalism on jobs, living conditions, the environment etc can be meet by one or two policy changes or reforms rather than an alternative programme for government. On their own, without explaining what the Labour Party has become or raising the need for a new workers’ party, such ‘democratisation’ proposals are insufficient.

It also means that Whose Money? is completely unconvincing in its later pages when it tries to answer various imagined ‘questions from a union member’. The idea that unions "could distribute the political fund proportionally according to a vote of the membership or a vote at the union’s conference... [or] delegate control of the fund (or a proportion of it) to the local organisations of the union" (p18), should be supported as a step to loosen Labour’s hold over the unions’ funds. But it does raise the question, "wouldn’t your proposals allow the Tories and Liberals to get some of our money?" (p17). Ironically, the pro-Labour link right-wing Amicus leader, Sir Ken Jackson, a flag-carrier for Blair’s public/private ‘reforms’, has criticised the TUC for "wasting my members money" by talking to Tory frontbench spokespersons "with a privatisation addiction" and for looking for closer links with the Liberal Democrats (Guardian, 13 March). To baldly reply as Whose Money? does, "No!... the political funds were set up in an attempt to create an independent working-class political voice. That should remain the case. Clearly the Tories and Liberals are big business parties..." (pp17-18) is an assertion not an argument. What is New Labour then, with its ‘addiction’ to the market? Making a characterisation of the Labour Party, and explaining the need for the unions to build their own political alternative, cannot be avoided.

Last year’s FBU and UNISON conferences passed resolutions calling for, respectively, a rule change and a review of the unions’ political funds. The FBU executive and UNISON’s Political Fund Review Task Group have both responded by arguing that freeing up a union’s political funds would open up the prospect of Labour disaffiliating the union. "Why should we be held to ransom?" answers Whose Money? If Labour threatened such a move "we should respond with a united campaign to... defend our right to spend our money as we decide" (p16), to support non-Labour candidates while still funding the Labour Party. Normally prisoners pay a ransom in order to be freed. This time the Socialist Alliance wants ‘the right’ to carry on paying money to the unions’ captors!

It is valid to discuss tactically how to raise the issues around the political funds in each union. But why is the Socialist Alliance afraid of the prospect of New Labour initiating the break-up of the union link? An earlier report by Matt Wrack to the Socialist Alliance executive, The FBU decision on the political fund (12th June 2001), gives the reason. Disaffiliation, he argues, immediately raises the question, "What will replace Labour? At this stage the Socialist Alliance, unproved as it is, will not be seen generally as an alternative. Rather, it is a question of building that support by our work". The implication is that the development of a workers’ ‘independent political voice’ must wait until the Socialist Alliance is ready to provide it.

Although Matt Wrack is a member of the Socialist Party his is not the position that was democratically agreed by a unanimous decision at the Socialist Party’s annual conference. Rather it echoes the haughty approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who organised a takeover of the Socialist Alliance at its December 2001 conference. They see the unions’ role as one of ‘rallying’ to the Socialist Alliance/SWP (if not today!), rather than as the potential initiators of an independent political voice for workers, a new workers’ party. Rather than meet the ‘what alternative?’ challenge with a counter-challenge, a campaign for the new left union leaders (in the RMT, ASLEF, the PCS, FBU, CWU and NUJ) to organise a cross-union rank-and-file conference to discuss what steps are needed to build a new political alternative, a move which would have a major impact on the situation in Britain, the Socialist Alliance/SWP lag behind. Whose Money? replies to the question, "Are you calling for the unions to disaffiliate from Labour?" with a firm "No – this debate is about something different". (p16) But what if a real ‘questioning trade unionist’, prompted by the arguments of his or her pro-Labour link leaders, insists on an answer?

A new workers’ party will not necessarily develop through official structures of the unions, although in Australia the first, tentative steps towards a new political alternative are coming from the unions, at least in Victoria state. It is certainly unlikely that a majority of the larger unions, at least nationally, would embrace a new party – the biggest unions also remained wedded to the Liberal Party in the early days of the Labour Representation Committee.

But as the New Labour government relentlessly pursues its big-business agenda, particularly as the impact of the world economic downturn makes itself felt, so the idea will relentlessly return to trade unionists in struggle, that there must be an alternative. Socialists in the unions can play a critical role in developing this consciousness, by bringing forward timely proposals and arguments to push the trade unions into independent political activity. But for guidance in this task they will have to look for a greater clarity of ideas than can be found in this Socialist Alliance pamphlet.


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