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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 December 2009

Unions Need A Political Voice

THE ELECTORAL commission, a new quango set up this year to regulate political parties and their electoral activity, has reported on the huge amount of money the unions are giving to New Labour's election fund.

Bill Mullins, Socialist Party industrial organiser

In the six weeks between 16 February to the end of March, the first 'reporting period' under the new

legislation, the GMB general union donated 1.2 million, and the TGWU, 178,218. The AEEU engineering and electrical union donated 449,730, the retail workers union, USDAW 176,485, and the manufacturing, science and finance union, MSF 178,000.

UNISON, the public services union, was recorded as having donated 750,000, although it has been reported that Dave Prentis, the general secretary of UNISON, had held back 250,000 because of their 'disappointment' with Labour.

The Commission's report showed that in total, over the same period, New Labour had received four times as much in donations as the Tories, including over 2 million in individual donations from Lords Sainsbury and Hamley, and Christopher Ondaatje.

New Labour's treasurer, in denying the influence of the unions, said that they only get 30% of their money now from unions (it was 80% ten years ago), while 20% is from individuals and about 40% from members.

Nevertheless, the huge amounts of trade union members' money being poured into the New Labour coffers is delivering very little in return.

The great hope of the union leaders, and something they have continually hammered over to their members, is that they do have 'influence' with the Labour government. But now it is clearer than ever that this is not the case.

Dave Prentis's 'disappointment' is undoubtedly because, despite their slavish support for Blair and his policies, they have been kicked in the teeth.

Blair has made it plain that New Labour's second term of office will be dominated by his war on the public sector and the public-sector unions.

'No-go areas'

This is made clear in a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, which was initially not due to be published until after a May general election. This Blairite thinktank set up a commission chaired by Martin Taylor, chairman of WH Smith and, before that, Barclays Bank, to examine 'public private partnership'.

The subsequent report proposes that there should be no 'no-go areas' and that 'the distinguishing feature of the private sector is not profit, but competition' - as if one does not go with the other. Profit comes at the expense of wages, and when wages are held low by 'competition' then profits go up.

UNISON's leaders in particular, as the main public-sector union, are completely demoralised by the attitude of Blair and Brown, crying into their beer that they have been let down 'but what can you do about it'. Yet, as Socialist Party member Roger Bannister said at a recent UNISON national policy development and campaigns committee: "Why then are we putting so much effort into ensuring the re-election of a party of mass privatisation?".

The FBU conference policy decision to allow the funding of candidates standing against Labour who are more in line with the union's policies than New Labour is of major significance.

Firefighters have been on the receiving end of Labour-controlled fire authorities' attacks on their jobs and conditions for years. They, like the rank and file of other unions too, have had enough of the mealy-mouthed excuses put forward by the majority of the union leaders in defence of the government.

Firefighters Show The Way

MATT WRACK is secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) group committee covering Hackney and Tower Hamlets and a member of the FBU London regional committee. He drafted and moved the resolution on the political fund which was agreed at the recent FBU conference. He spoke to The Socialist:

"WE HAVE been discussing the issue of the political fund for the past five years at least. Our members up and down the country have faced attacks and cuts from Labour fire authorities.

Before 1997 the authorities and our leadership argued that the real problem lay with the Tory central government. That argument has been demolished by four years of Labour government and continued cuts. It is the frustration at this situation that has led to a questioning of the uses of the political fund.

In London we had also discussed this issue in relation to the Mayor's election. After Dobson's selection as Labour candidate a resolution came up saying we should continue to support Livingstone. That was agreed although head office stepped in and demanded that our donation be returned, which Livingstone did.

So there was support in London when we moved the resolution in October last year. I always felt that if the question was posed correctly we could win the vote at conference.

At conference there were two resolutions on the subject. London's resolution called for the fund to be used to support "candidates and organisations whose policies are supportive of the policies and principles of this union" , including candidates standing against Labour. Another resolution, from Bedfordshire, also raised the call for disaffiliation and support for the Socialist Alliance. The debate proved to be the liveliest of the week.

Replying for the executive, general secretary Andy Gilchrist argued that the timing of the debate was wrong, that Labour was the only viable alternative to the Tories. He questioned whether there was real support for the resolution in the branches.

Fortunately, the Bedfordshire delegates decided to withdraw their resolution to support London. In replying to Andy Gilchrist I argued that the London resolution was about democratising the fund.

This argument was made very concrete by the fact that we had four FBU activists standing as Socialist Alliance candidates. I asked conference to give the members in those Brigades the right to decide democratically who to back, the FBU activists or the New Labour candidates.

The events in St Helen's were of particular significance. During the week there had been agreement in St Helen's to support Neil Thompson, FBU regional chair for Merseyside and Cheshire, as the Alliance candidate against Shaun Woodward.

To Andy Gilchrist's fears of the Tories getting back in I pointed out that they were doing so - but as Labour MPs. I said we had a clear choice, particularly in St. Helen's; we could back a millionaire Tory carpetbagger or back Neil a long-standing and respected official.

We won the vote by four thousand but a number of delegations came up and apologised that they had voted against due to mandates taken before conference and before the St Helen's affair. There was huge elation when the vote was announced with delegates cheering and clapping while many on the executive simply looked stunned.

Considering what an important decision it was, the silence in the press has been astonishing. The executive planned well when they held the debate in closed session, thereby excluding the press. However, following this decision, it is important to ensure that activists in other unions discuss what has happened."

Free The Funds

THE CAMPAIGN to 'free the funds', so that the unions' political funds "can be used to back candidates and parties whose policies defend our members' interests", has been endorsed by union activists including national executive members of the CWU communication workers' union, USDAW, UNISON, the lecturers' union NATFHE, the PCS civil servants' union, and the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

It is also campaigning for the unions to "do everything they can do to promote and encourage the idea of a new workers' party".

Contact: Jean Thorpe, secretary,
Free the Funds, PO Box 24697, E11 1YD.
Tel 020 8988 8769.


Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 5 December 2009:

Vote Socialist

Defend The Right To Strike

Vote Socialist - For Real Change

Oldham Youth Resist Racist Provocation

New Labour's Flexible Friends

Asylum: Tories And Labour Play The Race Card

The rot at the core of public services

Macedonia Slides Toward Civil War

Unions Need A Political Voice

Bosses Provoke Postal Strike


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