Postal workers withhold funds

"You cannot have an ethical party or an ethical government if people believe their donations buy them something" (The Times March 29). Fine words indeed from the mouth of the Labour Party's general secretary, David Triesman. There was a time, before the 1997 general election, when 'cash for favours' and 'cash for access' were phrases redolent of a Conservative Party that, among its many other failings, was perceived to be mired in sleaze. But then came Bernie Ecclestone, the Hinduja brothers, Keith Vaz, Lakshmi Mittal et al - not forgetting a certain US conglomerate called the Enron Corporation. Were Triesman's words a prelude to some kind of act of contrition for Labour's own sins, when it comes to the link between donations and government policy and decision-making? Mea culpa? Not a bit of it. They were part of a Millbank-inspired assault on the trade unions in general and the Communications Workers Union in particular, for the CWU has had the temerity to slash its political funding to the Labour Party by some £500,000 over the next three years. The reasons for the CWU's decision are obvious: up to 45,000 postal workers' jobs are to go and thousands of post offices are to be closed as part of Labour's plan for the 'deregulation' of the post office. A welcome decision, then, though it clearly falls somewhat short of CWU general secretary Billy Hayes's March 16 statement that the union "would not finance politicians or other bodies which do not support the principle of a public postal service". For the union this must be the first shot across Labour's bows, since the CWU will continue to donate around £1.5 million to Labour's coffers. Brother Hayes said: "Clearly I think they will take notice. I hope they will take notice." As Consignia's brutal job cuts plans begin to bite, pressure will inevitably grow for a more robust reaction - not just further reductions in funding, but maybe a call for outright disaffiliation from the Labour Party or, if some on the right get their way, even the ending of the political levy. A pattern of sorts is beginning to emerge, as the pivotal point of Labour's 'organic link' with the working class comes under increasing strain. As readers will know, the Fire Brigades Union has voted to democratise its political fund; RMT has put sponsored MPs on notice; GMB is cutting its donations by £2 million over the next four years; Unison is reportedly reviewing its contribution in the light of Blair's privatisation of public services, with all that means in terms of job losses and deteriorating pay and conditions for those workers who find themselves in privatised enterprises. These are, in the case of the FBU, RMT and Unison, the result of grassroots activism, and, in the case of GMB, an expression of top-down frustration with New Labour. There is a growing sentiment, frequently expressed by speakers at the Socialist Alliance trade union conference on March 16, which asks, in effect, 'Why should we continue to fund a party that is kicking us in the guts?' However, it is important that this healthy sentiment does not translate into hasty or impatient action, such as inept and premature calls to 'break the link' with Blair's party and transfer funds to the Socialist Alliance. To state the obvious, the SA does not enjoy mass working class support. Millions of workers are not about to flock into our ranks. We have a long, patient job to do in not only breaking our class from the party it has traditionally supported, but in building a genuine alternative. That is why, as Matt Wrack explains in his excellent SA pamphlet, Whose money is it anyway?, the correct tactic must to be to insist that the unions' political funds be democratised - breaking Labour's monopoly and allowing them to be redirected in the future. In the meantime union militants should not simply demand that all cash be withheld from the Labour Party. Rather union funding should be made conditional on the party agreeing to back key union policies. The same stance should be taken towards sponsored MPs - already adopted by the RMT. No doubt Triesman will continue to describe this as an attempt to gain "favours" for union cash. So be it. But for us the main question is the need to engage with the millions of trade unionists who allow their money to be used in this way. Are we getting 'best value'? If Blair and co, as they surely will, refuse to countenance the terms on offer, then in the eyes of union members that will raise the question of the need for a party that will fight for their interests. Maurice Bernal