New Labour's attacks on trade unionists has provided an important argument about political affiliation.
There will be an intense debate this year in almost every union conference about the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions. No one should underestimate the seismic shift that has been going on for the last couple of years and which has quickened massively even in the last few weeks.
Labour has had a monopoly over the political funds of the affiliated trade unions for more than 100 years. It still receives some 40 percent of its annual income and an even larger percentage of its election war chest from the trade unions, despite Blair's attempts to reduce reliance on the unions by courting donations from big business and the individually very wealthy. And with declining income from those quarters recent figures suggest that a cash-strapped Labour Party is currently even more dependent on union financial support.
The questioning of the union/Labour relationship now raging among activists and preoccupying union leaders is therefore extremely significant for Labour. Last year the giant GMB union, with many public sector workers in manual jobs, and the communications workers' union the CWU cut donations to the Labour Party. The rail workers' union the RMT made continued support for its sponsored MPs conditional upon satisfactory answers to four questions relating to union policy. John Prescott decided to tear up his union card rather than render himself accountable to the union.
In the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), however, motions to democratise the political fund were heavily defeated after Andy Gilchrist used the coming pay claim to urge unity. He claimed that democratisation would lead to disaffiliation because it would put the FBU outside the Labour Party's rules. No one should have any illusion in a golden age of Labour, he argued, but the union's affiliation to Labour did give them some influence.
But things have moved on massively since then. Brown, Blair and Prescott decided to make an example of the firefighters in order to drive through their so called modernisation programme for the public services--that is, more privatisation and attacks on jobs and conditions.
The vilification of the FBU by some Labour ministers is without precedent for Labour even compared with its imposition of the Social Contract in the 1970s. And Prescott's response to the Bain report's recommendations of massive changes to conditions, massive job losses in their wake and very modest increases in pay shows the government at the moment is in no mood even for minor compromise.
Add to this the almost daily round of news stories which will be compounding the anger and disillusion not just among FBU members but among hundreds of thousands of other trade unionists. There is the prospect of massive cuts to rail services as the government seeks to reduce subsidies to the quite extraordinarily inefficient rail companies and their fat cat directors. There is the pensions crisis--an estimated £27 billion hole in pension provision to which the government's response seems to be to suggest people should 'work until they drop', in the words of the 'London Evening Standard'.
There's the sleaze surrounding the difficulties of the prime minister's wife. She's had an enormous problem distinguishing the truth from fantasy, possibly raising questions about her suitedness for the legal profession. More important than that, though, is the exposure of the fact that the Blairs are very wealthy, very mean and utterly hypocritical.
And then there's the war. War on Iraq now seems almost certain. In Britain we've seen the growth of an enormous anti-war movement, with no less than five trade union general secretaries addressing the 400,000-strong demonstration on 28 September. Opinion research by Patrick Seyd has suggested that tens of thousands of Labour Party members will see Blair's support for a bloody war on the innocents of Iraq as the final straw pushing them into resignation.
Not surprisingly these tensions are beginning to show within the Labour Party. Brown took a hard line against the firefighters but briefed privately against top-up fees for students. In mid-December Rhodri Morgan, the leader of the Labour group in the Welsh Assembly, publicly distanced himself from New Labour, talking about the 'clear red water' he claimed there was between 'the way in which things are being shaped in Wales and the direction being followed in Westminster.'
Morgan specifically aligned himself with what he considered the philosophy of the 1945 Labour government--universalism against means testing and pursuit of equality against pursuit of choice. It is another issue whether Morgan's administration has actually delivered services on the basis of a more socialist philosophy but the important thing is that, with Assembly elections in May, he feels the need to portray Labour in Wales as considerably to the left of the parliamentary party. All of this means that the debate at this year's union conferences will be very different from the last, with much more disillusion with and anger against New Labour.
A real debate
At a conference organised by the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs in Manchester, Andy Gilchrist talked of the need to replace New Labour with 'Real Labour' values--values opposed to privatisation, in support of properly funded public services and public servants, for trade union rights and against war on Iraq. He was saying this in the context of himself remaining in the Labour Party and supporting the FBU's continued affiliation to the Labour Party, His argument was that the Labour Party has to change but we need to be inside it to change it. But he conceded that there would have to be a real debate at the FBU's conference about future support from the FBU for the Labour Party.
Literally thousands of firefighters have used the FBU's option of signing letters asking for the element of their individual levy earmarked for the Labour Party no longer to go to the Labour Party. FBU executive and Labour Party member Mick Nicholas said at the Manchester conference that, having held the line at the last two annual conferences, he now expected them to lose a disaffiliation motion this year.
Both Billy Hayes from the CWU and Andy Gilchrist are clearly considering trying to forestall democratisation or disaffiliation by arguing that they will no longer give Labour a 'blank cheque'. In future, support for Labour MPs would be focused particularly on members of the Campaign Group and others who show support for key union policies, and more of the political fund would go on the unions' own campaigns.
The Socialist Alliance, which played a key role in the debate over the future of the link at last year's union conferences, has firmly argued that union members need a political voice. It is perfectly understandable that firefighters and other union members may wish to stop their donations to the political fund and support the union disaffiliating from Labour through sheer anger and frustration. But the only people who will benefit from trade unions no longer seeking political representation for their members will be those political forces whose fundamental philosophy is anti-union: the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the BNP.
Democratisation is essential to keeping the unions political while rejecting a blank cheque for Labour. This is something some union leaders appear to be beginning to understand. However, reductions in union payments to New Labour and targeting of support on the small number of socialist Labour MPs will be combined with arguments from the union leaders that no funds should go to other socialist organisations and candidates.
The Communist Party/'Morning Star' has argued that there is no serious alternative to Labour and that it goes against trade union traditions of organisation not to move as one on the basis of a national union decision. Others will argue that democratisation will open up the possibility of union funding for the Liberal Democrats, or worse.
Bob Crow answered this argument at the Manchester conference. The forerunner of the RMT was a founding union of the Labour Party, more than 100 years ago. At that time there were many voices who said that it would be impossible to build an alternative to the Liberal Party--to which the unions were largely at that time allied. It was a small number of union activists and socialists who initially argued that an alternative had to be built--and built it was.
The question of the Liberal Democrats is a serious one. The Liberal Democrat leadership, despite having their origins in the SDP split which helped to keep the Tories in office for 18 years, opportunistically pose to the left at times. Ironically, trade union leaders like John Monks and Bill Morris have then fed illusions in the Liberal Democrats by inviting them to speak to the TUC conference.
The Liberal Democrats, where they are in office in local government, are no better than New Labour. As far as the political fund is concerned, democratisation--placing the funds under the control of the members who provide the funds in the first place--should be on the basis of funding candidates and organisations which support union policies. The Liberal Democrats do not, any more than the Tories, support the repeal of the anti trade union legislation, renationalisation of public services, etc. And as for the BNP, every union has established anti-racist policies which would automatically rule out union financial support.
The Socialist Alliance's argument is that the union funds should be democratised and the funds should go to socialist organisations and candidates whether they are inside or outside the Labour Party.
It will still be argued that there is no serious socialist alternative outside the Labour Party to which union members should consider giving support. It is true that there is no socialist organisation which can boast anything like the number of members or elected representatives of the Labour Party. But there are now across Britain organisations which, with growing union support, can begin to present a serious alternative to New Labour.
In Scotland there is the Scottish Socialist Party, boasting some 6 to 9 percent in recent opinion polls for the Scottish Assembly elections in May and already with one MSP, Tommy Sheridan. In England there is the Socialist Alliance, with over 5 percent in local elections last May and which in 2001 had no less than four serving firefighters standing as candidates in the general election--recent by-election results in Hackney were 7 and 8 percent of the vote.
Both the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance stand for the kinds of policies which trade union activists would like the Labour Party to have, but of which there is very little prospect now with Blair's New Labour.
The arguments of those on the left in the unions that Labour should no longer be given a blank cheque and that funding should be targeted on socialist MPs open the door to the argument for full democratisation. Money should go to socialist candidates and organisations, but why only to socialist candidates and organisations which are in the Labour Party? Union members will rightly ask what political voice they will have where there isn't a socialist Labour candidate. The answer is with those candidates and organisations outside the Labour Party.
For the Socialist Alliance, it is vital we make this a central issue of debate at every major union conference this year, and that we begin to win the debate for democratic control of the political fund and of the unions' political representation.