Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/245/24879
New Labour And The Union Link: Feeding The Hand That Bites Us!
AS THE government tries to force through privatisation of the Post Office, health service, education, transport and other public services, more and more workers are questioning the link between the unions and New Labour.
Secretary of Free the Funds, Jean Thorpe, and a member of public sector union UNISON's national executive committee (in a personal capacity) spoke to The Socialist about these developments.
Q: A platform speaker at UNISON's national conference attacked 'the sinister organisation... Free the Funds' behind the resolution calling for a review of the union's links with Labour. Could you tell us a bit more about Free the Funds?
The Socialist Party launched Free the Funds in 2000. The campaign calls for union political funds, which currently only support New Labour, to be freed up so that candidates and parties supporting the interests of union members can be backed. We are also campaigning for the formation of a new workers' party.
Last year, trade unions donated £6 million of members' subs to New Labour. In return New Labour has launched a massive programme of privatisation. Failing hospitals are even to be handed over to BUPA or to charities.
New Labour is an openly capitalist party. Socialist Party members have for several years raised the need for a new mass workers' party to represent the interests of working-class people. With the mood beginning to turn against what the government was doing, we judged the time was right to launch Free The Funds.
Our campaign is a cross-union. It is sponsored by ten trade union national executive committee members. We have a petition and model motions for individual unions. We have speakers available to speak at union branch meetings and are aiming to get the issue of the political funds raised at as many union conferences this year as possible.
Q: Why do you think support for freeing the unions' funds from New Labour is growing?
The government's current policies are forcing many activists to question the union link with New Labour. As Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly said at last year's UNISON national conference, when moving the motion on freeing up the funds: "Why should we feed the hand that bites us?"
Attacks on workers' pay and conditions are unrelenting. Privatisation is proceeding at a far faster rate than it ever did under the Tories. Labour is treading where the Tories dared not tread - for example privatising local education authority services. Blair is seen by many as a puppet of the bosses, lining their pockets with the profits of public services that have been privatised.
UNISON, the RMT and the FBU, voted at their national conferences to review the Labour link. And the GMB has decided to reduce the amount it gives to Labour by £2 million over the next four years.
Some years ago a group of Tameside UNISON members stood as anti-cuts candidates against Labour in local elections. Many local UNISON members were sickened that UNISON couldn't back them financially, even though the programme they stood on was in line with UNISON policy - in contrast to the Labour council's cuts and privatisation manifesto.
A freeing up of UNISON's political funds would mean groups like the Tameside women could get financial support in future election campaigns.
Q: Do you advocate disaffiliation from the Labour Party?
Many socialists have been expelled and there is no room for dissent or genuine debate within New Labour's ranks. Most of its funding comes from big business and he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Labour's degeneration into a capitalist party is now complete. A new mass workers' party to represent the needs of ordinary people is needed.
It follows therefore that the trade unions should stop funding Labour. We support disaffiliation. However this has to be explained carefully.
There are still some trade unionists who think Labour can be changed. They also think that by continuing to fund Labour, the unions will be given some influence over its policies. This isn't the case as Labour's record over the last five years shows.
We are flexible in our tactics taking into account the different situation and mood in different unions. For example, in UNISON, we advocate that a third fund should be set up.
This proposal is a tactical one. Unison currently has two funds - one that can only be used to fund Labour, and one that finances general campaigning.
Within Unison's United Left our proposal is opposed by some including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). They propose that Unison should have just one fund, with members deciding how the money is spent. It would be difficult at this stage to get this proposal through Unison's national conference, as it would have to be a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority.
Our proposal for a third fund would be much easier to get passed in the short run. This would be an enormous step forward, and would enable UNISON to support socialist and anti-cuts candidates.
The situation within the FBU is slightly different. A resolution was passed at last year's conference calling for the political fund to be freed up so the union can support candidates other than Labour.
The aim of breaking the link with Labour, would not be to end up with non-political unions nor to support other pro-capitalist parties like the Liberal Democrats but to enable unions to support candidates and parties that advance their members' interests. In particular, Free The Funds will encourage unions to stand their own candidates.
Given the complete embracing by New Labour of the pro-market agenda, a new workers' party is needed. That is a key task now facing trade unions and left activists in Britain.
Q: What exactly do you mean by a new workers' party and how do you see it being built?
As early as 1995, when Arthur Scargill left the Labour Party, the Socialist Party first raised the need for a new worker's party. Such a party could bring together trade unionists, socialists, environmental and other campaigners, oppressed groups and indeed all those seeking an alternative to the left of New Labour.
A new worker's party could politically channel the anger and disillusionment that many feel towards Labour. It would also win support from layers within the anti-capitalist movement, many of whom are tentatively reaching towards alternatives to capitalism.
The task of building a new workers' party will be a complex one. Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party had the potential to develop into a new workers' party but degenerated because of its top-down, authoritarian methods. Another complication was the Socialist Alliance moving away from a federal and inclusive alliance into a centralised organisation dominated by the SWP.
However these complications and setbacks will prove to be minor ones. As New Labour's privatisation agenda steamrollers on, more and more workers will be forced to defend their jobs and services.
The questioning of the link with New Labour is gathering pace. More workers will draw the conclusion that a new party is needed.
There is a growing militancy amongst workers, resulting in the election of left leaders in unions such as the RMT and PCS. They, for example, could use their authority to organise a conference to discuss the building of a new party. Potentially such a conference could represent tens of thousands of workers.
Reaching out to community campaigns, socialists and all those looking for an alternative to New Labour, they can play a crucial role in the building of a new party that would genuinely represent the interests of working-class people.
In The Socialist 15 March 2002: