An important conference of rank and file trade unionists is set to take place in London on 16 March. Organised by the Socialist Alliance, the conference will bring together shop stewards and union representatives, as well as other trade unionists to debate the issue of the trade union political fund and the financial links between New Labour and the unions. It will also discuss the campaign against privatisation.
So far over 600 trade unionists have registered and organisers are expecting the final number to exceed 1,000. Demand to register has been so great that an overflow room may be needed. There will be delegates from virtually every trade union. Over 55 union branches have already passed motions at either branch or branch committee level to send official delegations. There will also be executive members there from both Unison and Natfhe and the conference is supported by PCS general secretary elect Mark Serwotka. The national media has also expressed interest with the BBC's 'Newsnight' programme covering the event as well as the 'Guardian'.
The backdrop to the conference is New Labour's continuing close links with big business and its attacks on the trade unions. New Labour's determination to press ahead with more privatisation as well as Tony Blair's speech in which he referred to those who oppose such policies as 'wreckers' have deepened the tension between New Labour and the unions. This was acknowledged by Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union in the Guardian recently: 'It is New Labour with its agenda of crypto-privatisation and of seemingly valuing links with big business more than those with affiliated unions which has brought the relationship into question. Is it any wonder that union activists are getting increasingly uneasy about New Labour?'.
At the heart of the debate is the issue of funding. At the moment the trade unions and individual union members contribute around 40 percent of Labour's year on year funding. The unions provide around £10 million in annual affiliation fees and donations. This funding is even more important during elections. For the last election New Labour raised around £5.3 million. The unions provided over £3.75 million of this. Now, however, many trade unionists are asking why they should give so much money to a party that pursues policies which are at odds with the aims of the union.
Already a number of union conferences have decided to review their financial links with Labour. Two years ago the CWU union conference refused to increase its contribution to the party and voted to completely break the link with Labour if privatisation continued. More dissent followed the next year as the FBU voted to consider opening up the political fund to parties other than Labour. Unison has also voted to hold a review of where its money goes and the RMT is doing the same. Reports suggest that the RMT may decide to withhold their funding of Labour MPs such as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. The GMB has already decided to withhold some of its money that was due to go to Labour and instead spend it on a publicity campaign opposing privatisation.
The rift between New Labour and the unions means there is growing support for democratising the political fund--opening it up to be used in a way that allows other parties that represent union policy to benefit from it rather than the money automatically going to New Labour. For example in the train drivers' union, Aslef, some members are arguing that a ballot should be held of all union members and money should be allocated to those parties in the proportions reflected in the ballot. So for example, if 60 percent of union members vote to support New Labour then they should receive this proportion of the union's political fund. Yet if, say, 20 percent of union members support the Socialist Alliance or the Scottish Socialist Party, then the union's money should be allocated appropriately.
The political funds were established by the unions to further their political aims. They are intended to create an independent working class political voice. By freeing up the political fund to allow support for candidates who identify more closely with the unions' aims and policies, right wing or Nazi groups would be excluded from benefiting. It would also allow socialists to argue that unions should not support candidates who are in favour of privatisation, such as the Liberal Democrats.
Such a policy will give rank and file members the opportunity to decide for themselves who they wish their union to support politically. It will mean the trade unions will more accurately reflect the opinions of their members. It will also allow activists in those unions, such as the PCS, NUT and Natfhe, which do not have a political fund, to argue that one is set up and for it to allow backing for political candidates.
The future of the political fund is a vital issue for the working class in Britain. It is not simply about voicing anger at New Labour, it raises a raft of questions about the future of working class politics. Where trade unionists choose to place their loyalties has a big impact on whether they feel able to fight industrial battles under New Labour. Already the simmering discontent with the government is threatening to spill out into industrial action. Rail workers on Arriva Northern have struck repeatedly for 48 hours. Tube workers in London in Aslef and the RMT have voted by eight to one for 48 hour strikes. Postal workers have voted by two to one for action over pay, plus there are disputes in the civil service, among local government workers and medical secretaries in hospitals in the north east of England. Votes are also taking place among London teachers and car workers at Longbridge in Birmingham. Whether this translates into a general offensive against the government remains to be seen, but the overwhelming vote to strike in ballots is a sign of how deeply unpopular Labour's policies are.
The Socialist Alliance conference will bring many of these people together. It will show there is an alternative to the pro-business policies of New Labour. It will also be important in building a network of rank and file activists, and arming them with the arguments about the trade union political fund that are certain to arise at this year's trade union conferences.