Socialism Today            Socialist Party magazine

The union link with New Labour

Labour’s break with its past

Free the Funds

Bob Crow’s election as general secretary of the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) represents a significant shift to the left within the British trade union movement. Set against a rise of industrial action it highlights mounting tension between the New Labour government and the unions. LOIS AUSTIN looks at the pressures growing on this 100-year-old link.

TRADE UNION MILITANCY is on the up. Teachers are balloting over London allowances, prison officers and even the police are threatening action over pay and conditions. Sixty-thousand workers in social security benefit agencies have been on strike over the past few months. Arriva Trains North, South West Trains, and ScotRail workers have brought whole sections of the rail network to a halt, and London Underground drivers voted seven-to-one to strike over pay. Added to this is a myriad of smaller disputes up and down the country.

Privatisation, cuts in services and attacks on wages and conditions in the public sector, the continual haemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and low pay in much of the private sector, have led activists to demand that the once cosy relationship between New Labour and the unions comes to an end.

During the first term of Tony Blair’s government, workers were told that time had to be allowed before reforms could be introduced. This argument had a certain force because of the long years of right-wing Tory rule. However, a second New Labour victory has brought a renewed onslaught against the working class. Tony’s time has run out in the eyes of many workers. New Labour’s ‘honeymoon’ is over.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union and by no means a left militant, has been forced to fire a few warning shots in Blair’s direction: continue with privatisation and attacks on our members’ pay and conditions and you put in jeopardy union support. Although the GMB leadership is not supporting candidates standing against New Labour in this year’s local elections – having, last July, raised the idea of standing 1,000 GMB-selected anti-privatisation candidates – it has decided to cut the union’s funding of the party by £2 million over the next four years. The GMB tops have also vowed not to give money or support to Labour candidates who back privatisation. The money will be spent instead on campaigns run by the union.

Even Dave Prentis, the right-wing general secretary of the public-sector union, UNISON, who defends the link with New Labour, has had to acknowledge the debate. He commented rather meekly in the Financial Times: "I have to show that our political fund still works for members".

These rumblings reflect a radical process taking place deep within the rank and file. Last year, a number of trade union conferences passed resolutions aimed at weakening the link between New Labour and the unions and freeing up their political funds. At the 2001 UNISON conference, Glenn Kelly, Socialist Party member and Bromley UNISON branch secretary, successfully moved resolution 131. This asked why unions "hand over millions of pounds of members’ money to fund a party which is attacking our jobs, wages and conditions". It noted that significant numbers of people vote for independent candidates who oppose cuts and privatisation. Conference instructed the leadership to carry out wide consultation on the future of UNISON’s political funds. Last year’s RMT and Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conferences also instructed their national executives to review their political funds.

These developments could be the first steps towards a complete break with New Labour by some unions. This could be more straightforward in unions where there is a growing mood of militancy and a real hatred of New Labour, such as the RMT. This year’s RMT conference could agree to free-up the funds further, or even disaffiliate from New Labour. If this happened it could set a trend for other unions to follow as they come into conflict with the government.

Labour’s break with its past

THIS IS PART of the process first outlined by the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International at the beginning of the 1990s. The sharp movement to the right by the New Labour leaders marked the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the party. This meant stripping away the last vestiges of socialist ideals or representation of the working class. New Labour was becoming an out-and-out capitalist party.

This lurch to the right was massively reinforced by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The ruling class internationally went on an ideological offensive, proclaiming that socialism was dead and that independent trade unionism, workers’ parties and the class struggle had been buried along with it.

The careerists at the top of the Labour Party and trade unions fully embraced the market economy and big business. Genuine socialists, such as Militant supporters – the forerunners of the Socialist Party – were expelled. Clause Four, Part IV of the Labour Party constitution, which stood for the nationalisation of the economy, was abolished. The composition of the Labour Party changed dramatically, becoming predominantly middle class. Only one-third of New Labour funds now comes from the unions, compared with 90% in the late 1980s.

New Labour represents a clear ideological break with the past. The Blair leadership has enthusiastically embarked on a crusade of privatisation and deregulation with devastating consequences for the working class.

At the beginning of the 20th century, following bitter battles, the working class and trade unions concluded that independent political representation was necessary. Today that lesson has to be relearned although, with the accumulated experience of the last 100 years, the new workers’ parties of the 21st century are likely to start on a much higher level than the groups which heralded the formation of the Labour Party.

The working class has once again begun to feel its strength and confidence. This has not yet reached the level of the 1970s, as the tabloid newspaper headlines falsely proclaim, when millions of workers took action after years of unbearable pay restraint and anti-union legislation under a Labour government. Shop steward, rank-and-file and left organisation was more developed than today and there is a long way to go to regain that position. But one thing is clear: we are at the beginning of a new upturn in struggle.

The working class has been disenfranchised by New Labour’s shift to the right. But the need for representation on local councils and in parliament will push trade union and community-based campaigns to stand for election. Through the workers’ own experiences, the benefits of linking-up forces to widen campaigns from single-issue or local mobilisations, and of avoiding standing in elections against one another, will push in the direction of the necessity for a new workers’ party nationally. Nonetheless, there will be diverse political and electoral formations along the way, including the establishment of new working-class and socialist organisations. There will be steps forward and setbacks, too.

Free the Funds

PART OF THE search to find a new political voice will involve breaking the link between the unions and New Labour. But the process towards disaffiliation will also be complicated and come from conclusions drawn from participation in the class struggle. The discussion on the links with New Labour will again feature at this year’s union conferences. Socialists should put forward a principled position. Even some of those who do not have a clear socialist perspective, such as the anti-capitalist George Monbiot, have drawn the only possible conclusion: "Labour has become the workers’ enemy. It’s time the unions stopped funding it". (Guardian, 19 February)

New Labour is now a capitalist party and, therefore, the unions should stop funding it. There are still some trade unionists, however, who have illusions in New Labour. They hope that the political fund can ‘buy’ them influence with government policymakers, echoing the argument of the union rightwing. The case for disaffiliation needs to be explained in a patient and skilful manner.

Socialist Party members have initiated the Free the Funds campaign, which aims to allow money to go to anti-cuts candidates and parties on the left or to finance any steps the unions may take, such as running their own candidates, as a step towards a new workers party. In UNISON, for example, we argue for a ‘third fund’ to be established. The union’s existing affiliated political fund (APF), as presently constituted, can only be used to fund the Labour Party. The general political fund (GPF) is used for union campaigning. Establishing a third fund, which would not require changing the rules that govern the existing funds, would allow UNISON members to support candidates and parties other than New Labour.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and others in the United Left in UNISON oppose this idea. They want one fund with members deciding where the money goes. In an ideal world we would agree. The problem is that such a proposals would be highly unlikely to get passed at this year’s UNISON conference. The rightwing will invoke the constitution which states that rule changes require a two-thirds majority. Given the stage of the debate this would be difficult to secure. It is better, therefore, to put forward a motion which cannot be ruled out or defeated on technical grounds but which, if passed, would still mark a historic step forward for the left and the trade union movement as a whole. It would allow those who want to support and finance candidates and parties to the left of Labour the chance to do so.

In the FBU this debate has been going on since 1996. In the last general election, four FBU members stood as candidates for the Socialist Alliance (which was then seen as a democratic coalition of different socialist organisations and campaign groups, before its subsequent ‘takeover’ by the SWP in December 2001). This had a big impact, helping to ensure that ‘resolution 101’ was passed at the 2001 FBU conference, calling for the FBU political fund to be opened up to candidates and organisations which stand in opposition to New Labour.

Some on the left in the FBU who supported this resolution, however, think that it is wrong to call for disaffiliation from New Labour. They argue that, at this stage, this would lead to ‘non-political trade unionism’ because there is no credible alternative to New Labour. But to continue with the status quo means asking trade unionists to pay into a pro-capitalist party. The unions’ primary role is to defend their members’ interests, not those of New Labour.

It is also wrong to say that there is no alternative. The union could, for example, use its political fund to field its own candidates standing against cuts and privatisation. In the forthcoming local elections, it could also support genuine, tried-and-tested socialist organisations, individuals or community-based anti-cuts candidates. And, at a broader level, appealing to other unions including which are also in the public-sector frontline (some with a new left leadership) – the RMT, the civil service PCS union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and others – it could use its authority to organise a conference, representative of tens of thousands of workers, to discuss the next steps to building that ‘credible alternative’ to New Labour.

An upsurge in industrial action is taking place against the background of an encroaching economic recession. There is deep suspicion, even hatred, of the sleazy, corrupt big-business establishment politicians. These are conditions which cry out for the development of a new mass workers’ party, one which can genuinely represent the interests of the majority of Britain’s disenfranchised population.


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