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Why one union wasn’t convinced by Labour’s reform package

Ray CollinsOn Saturday March 1st, the Bakers’, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) opposed a proposal supposedly geared towards transparency and democracy in relation to the link between trade unions and the Labour party. We were one of the only unions to do so.

We opposed it for a number of reasons. Had I been given an opportunity to speak at the conference where the ultimate debate and vote took place, I would have outlined these reasons to everybody present. However, despite trying to get called throughout the debate, I was denied the chance to put the BFAWU’s case forward. I find that both frustrating and extremely undemocratic – especially as I was sat merely a few rows from the front of the stage.

Firstly, we must ask how transparent the process has been. I had to print off a copy of the reform proposals from the LRC website in order to discuss it at our last Executive Council meeting – a document described as ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’ by senior members of the Labour party. The Labour Party was founded by trade unions, not the other way around, and the British trade union movement is already the most transparent and democratic organisation in the world. When any politician starts talking about ‘reform’, the klaxons start blaring as ‘reform’ usually means dilution, erosion or a total dismantling of a system for ideological gain.

I ask on behalf of our members, if this is about inclusivity, then why were these proposals rushed through in a matter of weeks? Why were they endorsed by the Labour’s executive within days, before being forced through a hastily arranged special conference lasting a few hours? Our union also asks this question: would such an important document designed around inclusivity and transparency, not have been more democratic if the membership of affiliated organisations had been given the opportunity to debate it at our national conferences? After all, these proposals were allegedly aimed at individual members who make up trade unions. Why did so many people join the Labour Party in 1949? Was it due to naval-gazing, or because the party offered policies with a view towards improving the lives of us ordinary folk? We suggest it was the latter.

Last year, delegates at our annual conference debated our affiliation to the Labour party and whether or not it should be reviewed. The members present, who work in the food industry, are amongst the lowest paid in the UK. The very people that the Labour party needs to reach and engage with. The decision to remain affiliated to Labour didn’t centre on how the party leader was elected. Indeed, when speaking to members around the country, that issue was seen as naval-gazing, relevant to a small number of people in the Westminster village who were aggrieved that their man didn’t get the job.

The main issues discussed by BFAWU delegates centred on employment rights, rent controls, affordable housing and ending the increasingly blatant privatisation of our NHS. They felt that continued affiliation to the Labour party would leave our union better placed to address those issues in the political arena because of our collective link and voice within the party. Our union firmly believes that the creation of the Labour party made the political representation of the working class possible. In our opinion, that relationship with the working class is absolutely vital if the party is to represent the interests of working people, because we know only too well that none of the other main political parties will.

Our Executive Council have discussed the Collins document at length, and feel that it will do nothing to bring about a utopia of mass membership, because it is totally out of touch with the people it is supposedly geared towards. When large numbers of working people, particularly in our industry are having to choose between heating or eating in David Cameron’s “big society” Britain, the idea of paying into a political party that offers little more than continued austerity is not that appealing.

If the aim is to achieve a mass membership, then we have to offer our young people not just work experience, but wage experience by ending benefit sanctions and the enforced labour scheme of workfare, and we need to stamp out zero-hours contracts. We have to stop the demonisation of welfare claimants and address the fact that working people are only one serious accident or illness away from ending up on benefits and one financial catastrophe away from redundancy.

If we want to seriously engage with people and bolster Labour party membership, it won’t be achieved by documents reforming the trade union link. It will be achieved by offering a credible alternative to the appallingly vicious and vindictive policies of this government; a government that is proving to be even more uncaring than that of Margaret Thatcher. It will be achieved by stopping the relentless war on the most vulnerable in our society and by dealing with the welfare bill with a policy of full employment. We’ll also engage with people a lot more easily by tackling the issue of poverty pay which means that working people have to rely on state hand-outs in order to live. People want affordable housing and the ability to live and work with dignity and fair pay. These are the issues that people are facing every day, and they are the issues that have traditionally made up the common ground of values between the Labour party and trade unions.

Our members tell us that as trade union members and activists, they are sick of being demonised as ‘the enemy within’, sick of being scapegoats and sick of the political classes’ constant pandering to the narrow interests of wealthy individuals. They want politicians to represent voters, not the people who pay for expensive lunches; they want transparency, not dodgy deals done at lush banquets held in taxpayer owned properties.

Most people welcomed Ed Miliband’s commitment to freeze fuel, but the feeling from our members, which now appears to be filtering throughout the country from all sections of society, is that a pledge to re-nationalise would have been better. The very people that the Labour party has to engage with and recruit in order to achieve the mass, individual membership that they crave are calling on politicians to commit to a full re-nationalisation of not just energy, but rail and the Royal Mail as well. Whether or not Labour will acquiesce to the demands of the electorate should they return to government in 2015 remains to be seen.

While we’re still on the subject of transparency and representation, what of members of the Conservative party and others within the political classes with conflicts of interest and private donors? Why does the need for extra transparency only apply to Trade Unions and their relationship with Labour? What of other lobbyists of every political persuasion, who enjoy almost total anonymity, yet whose influence is felt right through Parliament, government and ultimately, the daily lives of ordinary people? Where is the transparency there? Will politicians and ministers have to be equally transparent in relation to their consultancy roles outside Westminster? Will they be equally transparent about possible financial gains through individual affiliations to organisations, such as pharmaceutical companies and private healthcare providers for example? Or does this high level of transparency only apply to the relationship between Labour, trade unions and their members?

The bottom line is this; trade unions have modernised over the last twenty years or so, and they are more relevant than ever, especially in terms of protecting working people from David Cameron’s nasty, malevolent and spiteful government. Trade unions are already an honest and transparent movement of mainly ordinary folk, who want their collective voice heard loud and clear in the political arena. The proposals that were voted for and carried at Labour’s special conference have the potential to silence the voice of ordinary people and hamstring their representation in parliament. There would be no Labour party without trade unions and we have earned the right to decide our own structure and deserve to be consulted in any ‘reform’ discussion in relation to the political party we formed. If Labour wants to dictate that relationship whilst taking our money, that money should be removed and spent elsewhere.

The last big change that happened within the Labour party concerning the trade union link was the scrapping of Clause 4. It may come as no surprise that the BFAWU, along with the NUM, opposed that change.  In the opinion of the BFAWU, this new ‘reform’ will not achieve what the leadership wishes it to. And that is why our union, the same one that warned of the implications of removing Clause 4, believe that the best way to be democratic and to achieve transparency is to a process that allows members to take part. I would have made that point very clearly, had I not been denied the opportunity. This proposal, which has now been accepted thanks to the bigger unions, did not provide that. That in itself is very telling.

Ian Hodson is president of the Bakers’, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU)

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