CHRISTINE SHAWCROFT’S frustrated outburst at the behaviour of some trade union representatives on leading Labour Party bodies produced a rare outpouring of unity from all wings of the party in defence of union affiliation. However, it opens up a serious debate about the nature of the link, how it is exercised and how it can be improved.
For many who have joined the party in the last two years this is new territory. Some new members regard the General Committee (GC) structure of local parties as inferior to all members meetings, without recognising that a GC delegate structure means that meaningful union representation is maintained at the local level. All member structures dilute and effectively scrap that.
The link, enabling direct involvement in decision-making at every level (not just occasional meetings between party and union leaders), marks the British Labour Party as almost unique compared to nearly every other social democratic party. This is one of the reasons that it never completely disappeared into neo-liberalism and declined almost to the point of non-existence like, for instance, the French and Greek parties.
That also explains why the likes of Blair, committed to neo-liberalism, were always keen to at least water down the unions’ input into the party, even if they never succeeded in scrapping it completely.
The Tories, as the natural party of big business, always want to weaken unions, both industrially and politically. What is disgraceful is when ‘our own side’ wishes to do the same - and, ultimately, for the same reason, to prevent workers fighting back against exploitation.
British labour history has many examples of attempts to weaken the unions, from the Taff Vale judgement of 1901 declaring that picketing was illegal, through legal prevention of particular unions being able to affiliate to the Labour Party, and the Tories’ latest Trade Union Act. This makes it more difficult to win lawful strike ballots, and has also introduced an opt-in system - and fee - for new members to contribute to unions’ political funds (unlike the previous opt-out system), in effect from 1st March this year.
But Blair isn’t the only one on the Labour side to have tried to weaken the party’s link with the unions. The Collins Report, adopted by a special party conference in 2014, also introduced the proposal that union members should opt in to payment of the political levy, and that they had to sign up as affiliated supporters in order to vote in Labour leadership elections - though not much else.
The thrust of the Collins proposals, like the Tory ones, was to move union input away from collective to individual decisionmaking, removing the very essence of trade unionism. Because Collins also introduced a completely new category of party supporters, who were in part responsible for Corbyn winning the leadership, many were reluctant to address the problems created by Collins. In essence, however, the unions, through TULO, the organisation bringing together all the affiliated unions, have killed off the union aspects of Collins, since it was never a rule change.
The consequence of Collins would have been a drastic fall in union representation, and therefore in affiliation fees, which are, in effect, membership subs in the party - a far from healthy development.
As well as defending the party-union link, there is an urgent need to democratise the union aspect of it. Unions are autonomous bodies, so reform of how unions function in the party has to come from within the unions, not imposed by the party. But union members need to fight for that.
There are many aspects to this. It is important that affiliation, selection of delegates and decisions on how to cast votes at local level should be decided at branch level and not, as in most unions, at regional level. Each union has to decide democratically who they put forward to represent the union at Labour Party NEC level - and the TUC General Council, for that matter - and there should be politically based elections, not horse trading, between the unions on who the union reps are.
Islington North CLP; Unison Labour Link national