Over the past months there has been debate inside many unions about the links
between the trade union movement and the Labour Party. This is not a new
phenomenon – it has always been around, pushed both by the Tories organised as
the CTU or Conservative Trades Unionists and by the various groups on the far
left. As the New Labour tendency in the Blair Government began to push forward
their programme of private finance of public services like schools and hospitals
trade unionists began to question why their hard earned dues should be going to
support a party, which in Government was acting against their interests.
The election of Left leaders in some trade unions sharpened the debate as
unions like ASLEF under Mick Rix began to challenge the New Labour leadership
and call for a review of the amount of cash given by the unions to the Labour
Party. This has been repeated in UNISON, Britain’s largest union whose General
Secretary Dave Prentis is now being named as one of the group of young left wing
trade union leaders.
UNISON was set up in 1993 by the former unions NUPE, COHSE and NALGO. NUPE
and COHSE had been affiliated to the Labour Party since the earliest days while
"white-collar" NALGO (the National and Local Government Officers
Association) had strongly resisted any link with Labour. NALGO members had been
balloted on affiliation to the Labour Party in 1982 and had voted 5:1 against
the move. The deal that allowed UNISON to be founded was that the Union’s
political fund has 2 sections. Only one of the sections is affiliated to the
Labour Party, the Labour-Link Fund. The other fund the General Political Fund,
pays for campaigning work and cannot be used for Party political purposes.
Members choose which Fund they pay their political levy to.
UNISON Conference in 2001 decided to carry out a review of the political fund
arrangements. The result of the review will be put to the Union’s Conference in
Brighton in June. The Review recommends that the existing arrangements continue
but that the Political funds do more to keep members informed of their
activities. Supporters of "Socialist Appeal" in UNISON would support
this but would demand that the UNISON Labour Link be democratised, opened up to
rank and file levy payers and transformed into a campaigning organisation that
can lead the fight to win back the Labour Party from the New Labour tendency
that has temporarily hijacked it.
Some lefts in UNISON will try to amend the final report establishing one
unified political fund to allow the union to support other political parties
(i.e. theirs!) If this were to happen which parties would get the money would
have to be decided by some democratic mechanism. This could result in UNISON
members’ money going to the Tories, which would be ludicrous!
The call for UNISON to break its link with the Labour Party is an
understandable reaction to the right wing anti-trade union policies of Blair and
his cronies. Understandable but wrong! The outlook has never been more promising
for the Unions and the left to transform the Party. UNISON as the largest
affiliated union should now join forces with ASLEF, NUJ, RMT, CWU, FBU, PCS and
that former bastion of the right AEEU-Amicus to bring Labour back to its