Simon Deville, Secretary, Birkbeck Unison, looks at the Labour union link in practice
The Labour Party – trade union link is always portrayed by its right wing opponents as an undemocratic stitch up by union barons telling the party what to do or by left wingers as the labour leaders tell the unions what to do. Neither stands up to scrutiny.
There has always been tension between Labour in office and its democratically decided policy. There is little evidence either that Labour affiliation somehow holds the unions back. The key things that hold union leaders back are that they often have an income and lifestyle that leaves them detached from the everyday concerns of their members, and the desire for an easy life. When union leaders aren’t facing significant pressure from their members, they tend to do very little as a result. The CPSA union under Barry Reamsbottom was one of the most right wing leaderships in the country and never needed a Labour Party affiliation to make it so.
Unison already has an opt-in to the Labour Party affiliation in the form of the Affiliated Political Fund and this has proved a disaster in terms of democratic accountability. Currently around a third of members are part of the Affiliated Political Fund (APF), though this would almost certainly be much less if members had to make a conscious choice now.
The structures of the APF are dominated by Labour Party and Union apparatchiks, with little control by ordinary members. Much of the left has absented itself from the struggle by joining the General Political Fund (GPF), giving an in-built majority to the right. Those in the GPF have no more say in that, as the priorities of the GPF are set by unison’s National Executive, not by GPF contributors.
For a union link that works we need the link to be controlled and driven by the rank and file members of the trade unions. This means that unions as a whole must defend their collective affiliation not allow this to be dissipated into the self-selecting atomisation of the opt-in proposal. At the same time, union delegates to the Labour Party must be held to account by union members. This must be done through the self-activity of trade union members; it cannot be reformed top-down by the Labour Party.