Jon Rogers, Unison NEC, reports from the Defend the Link fringe meeting at the TUC.
Since Ed Miliband placed a large question mark over the continued collective affiliation of trade unions to the Labour Party on July 9, many of us have been forced to re-examine aspects of politics which we have taken for granted for years.
Trade unions need a political voice beyond the workplace because our members live as well as work, and have economic and social needs which cannot be met by bargaining with employers. As important, since the legislature sets the rules by which we operate, we cannot afford to treat parliamentary politics as a spectator sport. The Lobbying Bill teaches us this lesson today just as the Taff Vale judgment did in the past.
Trade unions are collective organisations because standing together is the only way to begin to even the odds in the unequal relationship between worker and employer. It follows that trade unions act collectively, in politics as all else.
Ed Miliband’s call for the further individuation of the relationship between trade unionists and the Labour Party is a call for trade unions not to act like trade unions, but simply to provide a conduit for funds to flow into party coffers.
Trade unions aren’t taking this lying down. The emergence of the Defend the Link campaign, initiated by the LRC, but rapidly gaining broader support, shows there will be a fight to defend the union link. Keith Ewing, initiating the launch meeting of the campaign, spelt out the fact that, whether they wish it or not, our current general secretaries face the challenge of defending our political voice. At the TUC fringe meeting, the general secretaries of the CWU, TSSA and BFAWU were joined by Liz Snape, Assistant General Secretary of Unison.
Throughout the New Labour period, many of us on the left were critical of the way in which, it seemed, our unions meekly accepted hostile policies from the Party we had founded and funded — indeed, as both Liz Snape of Unison and Manuel Cortes of the TSSA said to the TUC fringe, we haven’t always made the best use of the link.
It now appears that, at the slightest hint that the unions might become more forthright, the party leadership wish to neutralise us. More than that, the current party leadership is clearly pursuing a path which may lead to a fundamental change in the nature of the Party. Blair altered one part of one clause of the constitution adopted in 1918. Now the whole federal structure of the Party, and the partnership of constituencies and affiliates on which it rests, has been called into question.
That the exoneration of Unite and its members over the Falkirk fiasco has changed nothing for the party leadership demonstrates that Ed Miliband’s plans for the union link reflect long term and deep laid plans. For Miliband, as for many of the cohort of ‘professional politicians’ around him, trade unions, in their relationship to our Party, are cash cows rather than sacred cows. Therefore, the question of the union link is, to the leadership, secondary to the question of party funding.
If a low ceiling can be set on party political donations, and with the Conservative Party, in membership terms, a tiny remnant of what it once was, even the Tories might soften in their opposition to state funding if the alternative was bankruptcy. Billy Hayes pointed out at the TUC fringe that John Denham’s recent call for the reopening of talks on party funding with the Lib Dems indicated clearly this line of thinking.
However, no cross party consensus on funding, nor even a bipartisan accord with the Lib Dems, is possible while Labour relies on the current model of union funding. Therefore, Ed Miliband had been waiting for the opportunity which Falkirk gave him — and will not change course now the truth is clear.
To the leader’s right are influential forces who essentially believe that the century old emergence of a distinct party of labour from the old Liberal Party was a mistake. For them, the prize could be a ‘modern’ party, free from dependence upon the ‘sectional interest’ of organised labour (and therefore unimpeded in implementing policies within the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus).
As the LRC’s Marshajane Thompson said in concluding the TUC fringe meeting, we now need to take the campaign to defend the link out into the unions and the constituencies.
You can sign up to support the campaign online at www.defendthelink.wordpress.com