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The Labour Union link – without it there is no party

Affiliated trade unions have always had a role in the formal constitutional structure of the Party. The relationship hasn’t always been straightforward. The trade union link has been put under pressure sporadically throughout history – either from external forces or as a result of internal conflict between the Party and trade unions.

In relation to External pressures, the link was threatened as early as 1909, by court action brought by a Liberal trade unionist – Walter Osborne. This resulted in the outlawing of the use of trade union funds for political purposes. At the time, MPs were upaid and the trade unions were using part of their subscriptions to pay salaries to Labour MPs. However, faced with opposition from the trade unions, the Liberal government passed The Trade Union Act in 1913, allowing unions to have a political fund as long as members were able to opt out.

Thatcher attempted to sever the link with the 1984 Trade Union Act, forcing unions to ballot all members about whether to continue to keep a political fund. This was an attempt to cripple the Labour Party financially – there was no attempt to introduce similar regulation of business and no ballots of shareholders when companies made political donations. However, it didn’t produce the results that Thatcher wanted. Of the 37 ballots held in the first year of the law, every single one voted overwhelmingly in favour to keep the political fund – with an average vote of 83% in favour.

We are seeing the external forces at work again today, with proposals to put a cap on donations by a single organization. We have the The Kelly Report: recommendations include a limit of £10,000 on donations from individuals, organizations and trade unions – unless individuals make a positive decision to ‘opt-in’ to the affiliation fee. This is a very different emphasis from the current ‘opt-out’ scheme.

This would be devastating for the Labour Party, who would be severly affected by the changes, and could face a potential deficit of £13.5 million. As Kelly’s proposals involve an additional £23m of public funds, they are unlikely to be implemented in the current climate of spending cuts. Nick Clegg ruled out any additional state funding when he announced last week that he wanted to set up cross party talks about party funding and hopes to reach a consensus by Easter.

Clegg is proposing that each party nominates two representatives to attend private talks. It is vital that the Labour Party representatives include someone from a trade union background who understands the nature of the funding and the importance of the link.

With no additional state funding, all 3 parties are likely to resist a significant cap on donations. However, we can’t be complacent. The only reason that the Hayden Phillips’ report on party funding was shelved, was due to pressure from the trade unions. We need to make sure that similar proposals are defeated again. If they do succeed, it will damage the Party financially and undoubtedly place the Link in danger.

The Tories have frequently attacked Labour for its ties with the trade union movement. But a Populus Survey carried out in January, reveals that most Conservatives are in favour of the rights of unions to fund the Labour Party.

According to the poll, 90% of Labour voters and 53% of Tory voters support the link. It also found that support for the unions is stronger among women (73%) and negative perceptions of trade unions are receding – demonstrated by support for the link highest amongst 18-24 year old (87%).

But it isn’t just external factors that have threatened the relationship. There are forces within the trade union movement and the Labour Party that want to sever the link – elements of the right within the Party and groups on the left within the unions.

There are people within the Party that want to see Ed Miliband take on the unions – Frank Field, writing in the Liverpool Echo, said:

…trade unions provide Labour with the vast majority of its income. Ed needs to be brave. He should reject this money and cut the size of the party’s national staff accordingly. It will be tough but such a move would show voters that Ed is his own man and that is the first move he needs to make in order to win an election.”

Such internal tensions are not new. As early as 1918, the TUC debated whether to continue to co-operate with the Labour Party following changes to the constitution to allow Party membership to non-unionists. The vote was in favour of continuing the relationship and rejected the establishment of a Trade Union Party by 3.8 Million votes to half a million.

The 1936 Labour Party conference saw dissent between the CLPs and trade unions. CLPs were angry that the trade unions sided with the NEC to vote down their resolutions.

Even in 1948, during the year of the foundation of the NHS, tensions with trade unions emerged at conference. Many unions were critical of the budget and opposed wage stabilization unless action was taken to limit prices and profits. At the time, the unions controlled five-sixths of the voting strength at the party conference.

In fact, the 1948 conference saw resolutions that are relevant today – subjects familiar to CLPD members:

  • criticism of the NEC’s domination of the party conference;
  • condemnation of tight and biased control of conference which discriminated against speeches from the floor;
  • too much conference time taken up by speeches by Party leaders;
  • too much Leadership control of the NEC.

In 2004 the FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party, over the Labour Government’s attitude in the FBU’s 2002-3 pay dispute and again there are parallels. In 1965, Desmond Donnelly, MP for Pembrokshire, called for a review of the trade union link and a loosening of the association. “There are left-wing union leaders who are constantly criticizing the Labour Government and refusing to co-operate”, he told The Times.

When he went on the criticize the pay rise for post office workers, the Haverfordwest branch of the Union of Post Office Workers disaffiliated in protest.

During the 1970-74 Conservative government, the TUC became more actively involved in the internal affairs of the Labour Party. A new liaison committee was established with members of the TUC General Council, the NEC, and the Labour Shadow Cabinet, which gave the unions direct access to policy making.

In 1981, the special Wembley conference increased the influence of trade unions in the selection of Labour parliamentary candidates and was one of the reasons the Gang of Four gave for quitting the Party.

It would be wrong to say that the division was always between the right wing Party and the left wing trade unions. The trade unions have not always been a left leaning force in the history of the Party.

The Electrician’s Union threatened disaffiliation in 1976 as the Labour Party had not acted on the report by Reg Underhill on Trotskyite activity in the Party.

And following the election of Neil Kinnock as leader, the role of unions in policy formulation diminished. The TUC-Labour Party Liaison Committee was downgraded. A reduction in the union share of the vote at conference from 90 percent to 70 percent was introduced in 1992, and 1993 saw the introduction of OMOV.

So how do we compare today to 20 years ago? The share of the trade union vote at conference was 70% in 1992, it is now 50% and we have resisted moves to reduce it to 40%. 41% of the NEC seats in 1992 were reserved for unions today it is 34%.

Outside of membership subscriptions unions provided around 75% of Labour Party finances 20 years ago and by the start of 2011 and without any new high value donors this was almost 90%.

Although we saw the RMT being expelled from the Party in 2004 for allowing its branches in Scotland to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party, and the FBU voting for disaffiliation, other threats of disaffiliation have so far not yet been carried out.

Following Ed Balls’ announcement that he accepted all of the coalition Government’s cuts and the public sector pay freeze. Comments from General Secretaries included a telling one from Paul Kenny; he said, “The commitment to the pay freeze could have a “profound impact” on the union’s relationship with Labour”.

And as we approach conference season there appears to be a hardening of this stance with affiliation set to dominate the agenda.

Whatever the outcome, the threat to the link doesn’t just come in the shape of a big bust-up or state funding of political parties. The slow and steady erosion of local links is real threat.

Looking at the grassroots, are trade unionists engaged with the Labour Party? The turnout in last leadership election suggests otherwise. Turnout amongst CLP’s ranged from a high of 85.9% to a low of 35.5% but most were around the 70% mark. In the unions, Aslef produced the highest turnout with 25.2% but some figures were as low as 4.3%.

How many Labour Party members are trade union members? How many CLP’s have attendance by affiliated members? We need to be encouraging trade union activists to get involved in the Labour Party.
So what is the way forward

As well as encouraging trade unionists to join the Party, we need to get Labour Party members to become trade union members. New joiners who are not trade union members need to be told of the importance of trade unions and directed to appropriate unions. There has to be greater prominence given to trade union issues at Party meetings.

We need to make sure that unions are directing their resources wisely. We need to hold trade union group MPs to greater account and scrutiny.

There is a positive message to sell, trade unions can be a way of reaching out to under-represented groups in the Labour Party. In 2010, 37% of Party members were women and whereas 55% of trade union members are women.

We provide a much-needed link between the Labour Party and working people. We have to create a common sense of identity – not a them and us attitude. Trade Unions must be a respected source of fresh ideas and solutions, an integral part of the Labour Party. And not seen simply as a source of income.

Because without Organised Labour there is no Labour Party.

Jim Kennedy is National Political Officer of Construction workers union UCATT. He is also Chair of the Organisation Committee of Labour’s National Executive, and Convenor of the union group on the executive. This is the text of his speech to the Annual General Meeting of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy on Saturday 18 February 2012.

One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    The first thing that needs to be said is that Labour must oppose any “reform” at all to party funding. It’s all an attack on the unions and it can’t be tolerated. Really, if union funding of Labour were greatly diminished, Britain would effectively become a Tory dictatorship.

    Moreover, we need to learn the lesson that the reduction in union power has gone hand in hand with the ideological self-destruction of Labour over the last 29 years. Unions need to reassert their power so that the modernisation process can be undone.

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