Edmonds ups ante

A story tucked away in The Mirror last week will doubtless have ruffled a few feathers amongst the thousands of trade union bureaucrats and New Labour apparatchiks living off the backs of the members they so badly represent (whether through union sub or Labour vote). The story in question was from Mirror Whitehall editor Paul Gilfeather, who highlighted the latest tactical gambit from the GMB union, under the leadership of John Edmonds. The article hints at a possible break in the 100-year-long GMB association with the Labour Party and the first step down the road towards disaffiliation. Support for independent candidates and slashing of GMB funds to New Labour by half (the equivalent of £2 million a year) were mentioned - moves which, if carried through, would indeed call into question the future of the trade union movement's relationship with Blair's party. Emily Thomas, national press officer of the GMB, attempted to play down any crisis in the Labour-GMB link, claiming Edmonds was "misrepresented" in The Mirror. But she told me: "The election of Dr Richard Taylor as an independent vowing to save a Kidderminster hospital should serve as a warning to Labour." This suggests that brother Edmonds is keeping his options open, in an attempt to protect both his left and right flanks. So what are the prospects of the GMB leading a charge out of the Labour Party? Under New Labour rules anyone supporting candidates other than those officially representing the party will be "placing themselves outside of the membership system" (ie, expelled). Yet the Mirror piece quoted a "union source" as stating: "We will now support independents fighting for public services in the local elections, but this will almost certainly spread to national elections if the situation remains the same" (January 3). Edmonds has since denied this possibility, saying that only Labour candidates would receive the backing of his union. However, the GMB "may refuse" to support Labour candidates who favour privatisation of public services. The tensions are there to be exploited by the left. Any support by a Labour-affiliated union for independent candidates would certainly cause Blair problems. The New Labour machine would be faced with an unenviable choice: expel the offending organisation and risk the start of a process which could see it deprived of the bulk of its funding; or ignore the culprit and leave the field open for other unions to follow suit. However, Edmonds is no fool. Similar threats have been made before and at this stage they are about no more than pressurising New Labour to ease back on PFI. Privatisation and more cuts not only mean sackings for the rank and file, but a loss of union revenue. In other words, the prospect of an alternative electoral centre based on the union bureaucracy is non-existent. Edmonds and co have no intention of provoking one and they will certainly fight tooth and nail to prevent union backing of any kind going to the likes of the Socialist Alliance. As far as they are concerned, any change of political allegiance will not be in the direction of independent working class politics. In fact Bill Morris of the TGWU recently held much publicised talks with the Liberal Democrats -not exactly a leftwing force. The trade union bureaucracy, despite retaining 50% of the votes at Labour conference, has lost much of its influence under Blair. It has been relegated to the status of a ginger group, occasionally granted 'consultation' by the party leader. Edmonds, Morris et al have to find new means of asserting their interests, which of course coincide to some extent with the concerns of their members - if they deliver nothing, their own positions are put at risk. Meanwhile, moves by the left to democratise the political fund, which enjoyed success in a number of unions last year, are set to continue. What response then from socialists and communists organised in the Socialist Alliance? Certainly we need to be sober about what the latest moves represent. We should exploit the situation to step up the pressure on the issues of privatisation, jobs and conditions, but most importantly seek to drive home the political point of who really represents working people. Calling immediately for a break in the union-Labour link would be tactically inept. If this happened under present conditions, without the existence of a working class party, it would inevitably lead to the depoliticisation of union members and possibly to the state funding of (and bureaucratic restrictions on) political parties, as New Labour looks for other sources of income. The SA has taken a step forward with the new constitution established at the December 1 conference, despite the unfortunate Socialist Party walkout. Its structure now more closely resembles that of a party, rather than an electoral alliance purely and simply. This process needs to continue, so that we can be prepared to play our part in any mass movement fed by the current dissatisfaction among rank and file union members with New Labour, and provide a focal point for the creation of the single party our class needs. The SA-organised trade union conference on Saturday March 16 will surely be useful in terms of getting activists together to start to map out the way ahead. In my view the broadening of the event - now billed as a conference not only to discuss 'The political fund - where should it go?', but also 'Stopping privatisation and job cuts' - is a good thing. Simply limiting discussion to the political fund, and its use for financing candidates, would have made us look as if we were interested in nothing but elections, even between elections! We need to think like a party. The conference ought to provide a forum for comrades from different traditions and none to meet and discuss work in the unions and develop a more coordinated, consistent practice. The approach of many of the constituent parts of the alliance varies greatly - we have no worked out attitude of what the SA's relationship to the unions ought to be. We need to use such events to reflect on our own work as socialist-communist trade unionists, going beyond some of the negative aspects of the current broad lefts, developing a rank and file approach, and learning from the best that the workers' movement has to offer. Bill Jeannes