Trade unions and Labour

Matt Wrack, Socialist Party member and Fire Brigades Union militant, addressed the CPGB?s Communist University earlier this month in a talk entitled ?Breaking the link - the unions and the Labour Party?. This is an edited version of his well argued and highly significant remarks

How the organised working class responds politically to Blairism is one of the immediate questions facing the trade unions.

In examining the trade union link with Labour I will start by looking at how the debate developed in the Fire Brigades Union, which led to the passing of a motion allowing the use of political funds to support non-Labour, working class candidates: firstly, because it is the union I know best, but also because it could be instructive about how events may unfold elsewhere.

Throughout the 1990s the bulk of the fire service was under Labour control, so we had a trade union facing attacks up and down the country from Labour-controlled authorities. That led to a developing debate about our relationship with the Labour Party.

As long ago as 1996 a very important resolution was put forward by Greater Manchester FBU, asking conference to establish a review of the political fund and how it was used, in the light of the attacks that we were facing as a trade union. The resolution specifically asked the executive council to consider funding non-Labour socialist candidates. This resolution was, of course, opposed by the executive council. Unsurprisingly, as they were the people given the job of conducting the review, they came back and said, ?Well, things may be bad, but we recommend no change whatsoever.?

One of the arguments against the resolution had been that we could not blame local authorities for what was going on - it was all the fault of central government, which was, at the time, Tory. Since the election of a Labour government in May 1997, that argument has not really held any water, a factor that has added to the way that the debate has unfolded.

A further factor influencing the way in which our recent motion was passed at conference was the Livingstone affair. In the London region an overwhelming majority of members had voted to back Ken Livingstone in the Labour Party selection process for the mayoral election. Once Livingstone declared his independent candidacy, we then had a further debate within the region as to whether we should continue to back him. This actually took the discussion to a wider layer of members - certainly in London - and the subsequent decision to continue backing Livingstone reflected that.

Of course, not many people had any illusions in Livingstone, and I would not particularly call him a socialist, but supporting Livingstone was an important strategic step forward in raising the question of breaking with Labourism. I would say the same thing may apply in other situations where groups of workers decide to stand independently. I do not know all the details of what happened in Hackney, where the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Party found themselves backing opposing candidates in the council by-elections on June 7. I am a member of the Socialist Party, but my own view is that the SP comrades were mistaken in what they did.

However, I do not think it is automatically the case that we are going to be able to say in every circumstance that we are going to stand a Socialist Alliance candidate, come what may. There may be cases where groups of workers decide to stand politically - maybe on a sectional basis - and if we are going to try and extend our influence then a friendly, fraternal approach is correct. That may mean we support people who do not have a fully rounded programme, or possibly would not even call themselves socialists. We do not want to encourage sectional campaigns as such, but neither do we want to take a sectarian stance that will create problems for us in the future.

Anyway, at that stage, the decision to back Livingstone was clearly in conflict with our national FBU policy, which was to only support Labour Party candidates. So when we wrote the cheque to the Ken Livingstone campaign, Ken Cameron for the FBU leadership immediately phoned Livingstone and said, ?We want our cheque back. London have got no right to pay you that money.? Ken Livingstone obliged.

These are some of the factors which explain why the London region was prepared to put forward a resolution calling for the right to support non-Labour candidates in elections. At conference itself, there were a couple of other factors. One was the fact that four firefighters were standing as Socialist Alliance candidates. I think we have to be wary of claiming that this represented wide support for the SA itself - there certainly is support among a layer of activists, but there was also the idea that these were our people. At least it was felt that we should have the right to discuss whether or not to support them. The most obvious case was that of St Helens, where there was widespread disgust at the adoption of Shaun Woodward by the Labour Party, and where FBU delegate Neil Thompson was the SA candidate.

This background and the subsequent debate explains in good part why the resolution on the political fund was carried. It was a highly significant result and hopefully gave a huge boost to comrades in other trade unions arguing for a similar position.

The FBU executive  is out to overturn the decision at next year?s conference. We must be aware of that in the battle ahead and defend our position. Tactics are going to be very important, just as they were at the last conference. Within the union?s small Socialist Alliance caucus there was a very instructive debate about how we should argue the case. This tactical discussion has implications far beyond the FBU.

There were actually two resolutions on the issue. One from London, which argued for democratising the political fund and allowing its use to support non-Labour, working class candidates. The other, from Bedfordshire, specifically called for disaffiliation. Those in London and Bedfordshire responsible for the resolutions were well aware that the standing orders committee would do all it could to keep the issue off the agenda.

My view was that we could win the argument and possibly win the vote if we posed the issue in terms of democratising the funds, but I have to say that other comrades - particularly those from the Socialist Workers Party - were convinced that we were going to lose both resolutions. So we might as well go down with all guns blazing. We should back both resolutions, they reasoned. However, I believe the SWP have recently had a national meeting where they agreed to move away from the slogan of ?Break the link?, and towards the idea of democratising the fund.

During the debate itself it became clear that a whole number of delegations were willing to back the London resolution, but were not willing to support disaffiliation. To their great credit the Bedfordshire movers then withdrew their resolution.

The way we pose the question in the movement generally is a key question. What happened at the FBU conference - and, I believe at the Unison conference - was that democratisation was able to win support far beyond the Socialist Alliance. It also won support from Labour members too. This is important, because if we are going to take things forward, we need as much unity on the left as we can get. It is democratisation that will win the maximum possible support.

I also think that this is more than simply a tactical question. Democratisation of the political funds is a very powerful idea that socialists can argue for: it is a way in which we can challenge the whole political culture in Britain itself, which centres around the idea that there is no alternative, that the market is dominant for ever and ever. Democratising the funds is linked to the whole question of the political way forward. We must show ourselves to be the strongest advocates of democracy. If the rank and file know that it is the socialists who are the ones who are campaigning for democracy and against bureaucratic methods, that can only but assist us and strengthen the fight for socialism.

What I certainly do not want is a return to the days of old Labourism. Then a handful of trade union leaders used members? dues to fund the Labour Party in return for petty favours and habitually made decisions in a way that effectively excluded the rank and file from any real participation. That was old Labour.

We should be saying that those who want support from the unions should put their case: not just to a national executive meeting, but in front of workers in their workplaces. If New Labour candidates want to attempt to explain why Unison hospital workers, for example, should support them, let them go to the hospitals and argue their case. Then the workers in those hospitals can put questions to them about PFI and so on. This opens up to trade union members - as organised members of the working class - the possibility of having a say in how their dues are actually used politically.

I would like to draw an analogy with the check-off system. As you know, by and large nowadays trade union contributions are deducted at source. This is obviously efficient. But it also allows trade union leaders just to assume that they have a certain amount of money available for use as they see fit. It is the same with the political fund. The trade unions hold millions of pounds in their coffers, and the leaders seem to think that it is their personal property to dish out to whoever is their particular friend at the current time. This is done by and large without any involvement of the rank and file. The idea of democratising the political fund allows the membership to put demands on their leaders and decide how funds are actually used.

However, we have to be realistic. At the present time we are not a majority in the working class nor a majority within the trade unions. The idea of democratisation accepts that elementary fact. We are effectively saying: ?OK, socialists are a minority, but we demand the right to go to workplaces and union branches to put our case.? If socialists can win the argument, then we should have the right to receive support just as much as Labour Party candidates.

It is possible that the Blairites are preparing a motion for the Brighton conference making any affiliate that backs an other organisation ineligible for affiliation to the Labour Party. That raises an interesting point in terms of my own union. In 1997, the EC issued a report to conference which stated that the FBU could not back non-Labour candidates because of Labour Party rules. Now if the rules prohibited backing for candidates other than Labour in 1997, why are they suddenly having to table a resolution this year? Obviously they were telling fibs.

We socialists should fight any such motion. If it goes through then we should challenge it in whatever ways are possible. Our union has a big list of affiliations, some of them obviously out of date. I do not know if the British-Soviet Friendship Society still exists or not, but we are affiliated to it anyway. The point is, if the British-Soviet Friendship Society did exist, and started telling the FBU how it could or could not spend its money, then I think we would tell them where to go. Certainly the Labour Party is a different kettle of fish; the principle is the same though. A body to which we are affiliated does not have the right to tell us as an independent trade union how we can or cannot spend our money.

The crux of the issue, if you like, is the question of affiliation or disaffiliation. There has been extensive debate. At one of our discussions, a comrade who favoured disaffiliation drew an analogy with the National Union of Teachers. He said that the NUT is not affiliated to the Labour Party, but it can still have political influence. I think there is a big danger in posing the question in that way. There has always been the trend that argues that unions should not be political. That they should simply lobby around particular issues. This would be a step backwards.

Obviously there has been debate within Blair?s circle for a long time over how to distance themselves from the trade unions and ultimately how to break the link. Their model is the Democratic Party in the USA. We do not accept their agenda Nevertheless, it seems to me that certain comrades on the left are saying that, although we oppose the Blairites, we are going to implement their agenda for them by simply walking away.

Most socialists are members of a trade union. We know that quite frequently our unions are run on completely bureaucratic lines: they frequently stitch us up and so on. In my trade union they forced through a deal last year to bind us to a system of compulsory arbitration with the employers. So I also object to paying the leaders of my trade union salaries of ?50,000-?60,000 a year. In other words I have principled differences. Nevertheless, I remain a member. I do not argue that when people have rows with the leadership they should refuse to pay contributions to the union. The same applies to a certain extent with political donations to the Labour Party. While we remain affiliated, it is our job to put demands on the Labour Party. Socialists fight for their ideas in whatever forums they are in.

The establishment of the Labour Party 100 years ago was a step forward for the class. It represented an acknowledgement by unions and workers generally that they needed to be organised politically as well as industrially. We may have debates about what emerged from that, about what the Labour Party represented, but the idea of political organisation was a step forward, and I do not believe it is one we should give up.

Disaffiliation poses the question, ?To be replaced with what?? If the unions disaffiliate from Labour at this stage, what are they going to do instead? The only immediate alternative I see is for some form of effectively non-political trade unionism. Or are we going to suggest affiliation to the Socialist Alliance? Again, I do not think that is on the cards. The SA is a new formation; it has not established or proved itself to the bulk of trade union members or even trade union activists. It is not realistic to say that - on a mass scale - trade unionists are going to affiliate to the Socialist Alliance, which is a tiny organisation at the present time. Making inroads is going to be a drawn out process, and tactically we have got to be very flexible. How Socialist Alliance caucuses within the unions and relate to broader formations is, incidentally, something that needs consideration.

At this particular time it is not correct to argue for disaffiliation from the Labour Party. That means, firstly, that trade unions must fight within the Labour Party for their own policies - certainly, in terms of their national policies, all the main trade unions have their points of tension with the Blair government.

Secondly, trade unions have the duty to place demands on particular Labour candidates. The example I would give of that is from my own regional committee. We listed the criteria that we would use to judge whether or not it was right to back a particular candidate, and on that basis in the London region there were some eight or nine candidates who did get funding from the London FBU, in the general election. What we do, as socialists, when we disagree with the criteria the union adopts is another matter that needs proper discussion.

The third task is, as I have argued, democratising the funds - something that can win widespread support and over which  the Socialist Alliance needs to take a lead. We need to build a wider base for that campaign: much wider than simply the existing forces within the Socialist Alliance.

If these three aims are adopted, it would give socialists a solid platform on which to organise within the unions over the coming period.