Will the unions break with Labour?

THE BEGINNING of the trade union conference season and the battle over the selection of Labour’s London mayoral candidate has opened up the whole issue of trade union support for the Labour Party. Bill Mullins writes.

NOT ALL unions balloted their members in the London mayor selection contest but around 80% of union members balloted voted for Livingstone (see box)

Most trade unionists who voted for Livingstone whilst he was still in the Labour Party voted for him in the election itself. This is a conscious vote against New Labour by tens of thousand of trade unionists.

Labour’s historical grip over the trade unions is beginning to loosen. It demonstrates that the issue is beginning to take hold in the unions and could become even more viable if a credible alternative on the left appears.


TRADE UNION leaders have agreed to double their donation to Labour’s general election campaign fund. In 1997 the unions donated £6 million of Labour’s £26 million spending. For the next election they have promised a staggering £13 million. They have also agreed to increase annual subscriptions from £1 million to £2 million.

Individual unions like UNISON spend £1.5 million per year on the Labour Party, others such as the engineering union AEEU and the TGWU donate nearly as much. Smaller unions like the CWU hands over £500,000 per year. Now they have threatened to hold back their promised increase of £100,000 unless New Labour abandon their plans to allow privatisation of the Post Office by the back door.

From 1979 to 1997 the unions paid over £200 million to the Labour Party. In that 18-year period, whilst the Tories were in power, the unions told their members to wait patiently until Labour won the election. The leaders held back their members from industrial action again and again.

Now after nearly three years of New Labour, trade union members are increasingly asking: “What are we getting for our money?”

Ian Aitken in the Guardian examines the relationship between New Labour and the unions with an article entitled: “New Labour may not like us but it needs our money”.

After saying strikes to save the Rover jobs are ruled out, he says: “So the unions are effectively reduced to pleading with the government to do something – anything, they know not what – to prevent the remorseless process of cost-cutting at the expense of their members’ livelihoods…” “If we can’t rely on the Labour government to protect our most vital interests… namely the jobs of our members… why do we give them all that money?”

Compare this attitude to the Blairites, who not long after the general election, leaked to the press that New Labour was about to dump its links with the trade unions. Stephen Byers let reporters know that this was Tony Blair’s thinking.

Now Roger Lyons, the general secretary of MSF and chair of “Trade Unions for a Labour Victory” is wined and dined at Chequers. He was reported to be “thoroughly impressed with the contents of the wine cellar”.


LABOUR PARTY membership is plummeting as the mainly middle class who joined after the election are jumping ship. Membership has fallen from 405,000 to 378,000 since 1997. This figure will fall even further as disillusionment with the government develops. One-third of Labour Party constituencies are refusing to send a delegate to this year’s party conference as it is seen as a stage-managed conference. “Never mind” said one spin doctor, this gives more seats for the corporate sponsors”.


THE RAIL union RMT London council has censured its deputy general secretary Vernon Hince, for releasing private letters to the press from Livingstone addressed to him as chairman of the Labour Party.

The 28,000-strong London construction branch of the AEEU has called for members to withhold their political contributions to the Labour Party because of the stitch-up for the mayoral election.

Resolutions to the CWU conference, initiated by Socialist Party members, calling for the union’s political fund to be changed, will be debated next month. They call on the fund not to be wholly tied to the Labour Party. Similar resolutions have been ruled out of order in UNISON, so afraid are the leadership of rocking the boat for New Labour.

The RMT will be discussing similar resolutions. This is particularly shocking for the union leadership, given the role railworkers played in the founding of the Labour Party.

RMT branches in London have donated hundreds of pounds to support anti-privatisation candidates in the elections despite this being in conflict with the union rulebook.

But this issue is still at its early stage. The FBU, whose general secretary Jim Cameron was widely quoted at last year’s TUC conference as being in favour of breaking with New Labour, has recently ordered his London region to reclaim their £3000 donation to Livingstone’s campaign.

Three years ago the same union resolved to open up the political fund to other candidates supporting the union’s policies but then reversed this at the next conference.

At local level the debate is beginning to take place on the need for the unions to have a new political voice. And it is clear that this will not be easily stopped.

As the general election approaches the union leaderships will be desperate to get the union’s members behind New Labour. They will argue against opening up the debate for a new workers’ party “when all efforts should be to keep out the Tories”.

But this mantra is beginning to have less and less effect. In the public sector, workers are faced every day with hard-faced employers in the councils and in the health service.

Managers are encouraged by New Labour councils to “take on the unions”. The governments “best value” contracts for council services are already causing widespread resentment, even though it only began last month.

Privatisation continues with a vengeance under New Labour. Public sector workers see little difference between the New Labour Party and the Tories.

Under these conditions, active trade unionists will demand that their union does not blindly give its loyalty to a party whose leaders have opposite and conflicting interests with the mass of trade unions Britain today.


SOCIALISTS IN the unions will have to put themselves at the head of developments which lead to a break from Labour – now an openly pro-capitalist party – and begin the task of creating a new mass working-class political alternative.

However the union’s leaderships will defend tenaciously their cosy links with New Labour whose outlook and ideology they share. So the breaking of the unions’ link with Labour will not be a straight process or happen in one swift break.

At first there could be an tendency to loosen the link or donate less to Labour and use the union’s political funds for other purposes or parties. In Spain unions ended their affiliation to PSOE in the 1980s but this did not see the creation of a new workers’ party. Instead they adopted a ‘neutral’ or ‘non-political’ stance.

In Britain socialists will argue that a break from Labour must be to give a political voice to the disenfranchised millions of ordinary workers and trade unionists who have been let down by New Labour.

That means a campaign will have to be launched throughout the unions, whose aim would be to effectively disaffiliate from Labour and to begin the real process of building a new mass workers’ party.