Britain - The debate over the unions' political fund and the revolutionary left

Mar/April 2002

Over the past three years or so, two parallel trends have been visible in a number of unions - the growing discontent of activists and rank-and-file members at the government's policies and the increasing frustration of the union machineries at the uncomfortable position which Blair was forcing on them. The combination of these two trends have resulted in some new developments.

So, for instance, some trade-union conferences have passed resolutions questioning the use to which was the political fund is put, in particular the fact that it is used to support the government and its candidates in elections. At the same time, a number of elections to top positions in these same unions and in other unions, have been won by officials advocating opposition to the government's policies. Blairite candidates were defeated, despite being backed in many cases by their union's hierarchy. More recently, over the past six months or so, seasoned union leaders who are not associated in any way with the "left", including some of the power brokers behind Blair's rise to power in the Labour party like the GMB leader John Edmonds, have made a big show of "fining" the government for its policies by cutting their unions' contribution to the Labour party.

Whether these developments herald a significant change in the union machineries' policies as far as workers' interests are concerned is, of course, another question. So far there is certainly no sign of such a change. Indeed, the small increase of industrial action over the past few months is not due to a more militant policy on the part of union leaders, but rather to the fact that attacks against workers have been stepped up.

So, for instance, as we argue elsewhere in this issue, the fact that the leaderships of the two main rail unions are now dominated by officials usually described as being on the "left" (although some of them do not present themselves as such) did not make much difference in the way they organised (or rather failed to organise) the recent scattered wave of industrial action in the railways.

As to John Edmonds, his scathing full-page advertising campaign against Blair's privatisation policy in the newspapers does not mean that he has given up his very Blairite "pro- partnership" line with the bosses, nor that he is leading the GMB on a collision course with the government. On the contrary, his strong-worded attacks are only aimed at getting Blair to agree to a "partnership" in public and privatised services with the union leaderships - something that Blair has consistently resisted so far.

It is no coincidence that the unions concerned by these developments are mostly connected to public and privatised services. Indeed there were certainly more illusions and expectations surrounding Blair and his policies among union activists in these industries than in any others. However, by now, these activists are confronted with on-going attacks on jobs and conditions which are bound to carry on for the foreseeable future if Blair is allowed to have his way. Understandably, after five years of Labour government during which their union leaders have done nothing to even try to protect the most basic material interests of their members, these activists are becoming restless and they are showing it in various ways - whether on the conference floor or in union elections.

At the same time, and quite apart from their members' discontent, which is not usually the main concern of the union leaderships, the machineries of the public services unions are faced with a real threat. The more PFI, PPP and other subcontracting and privatisation-by-stealth deals are implemented by Blair, the more these unions are bound to lose members. This was what happened to the railway union, the RMT, which has lost over half its membership over the past decade, partly due to job cuts, but mostly due to subcontracting and the loss of its past institutionalised status with the advent of the new privatised companies. As a result the RMT suffered a long period of financial difficulties, involving the loss of its headquarters and drastic cuts for its machinery. And although the RMT was always a much smaller union than giants such as UNISON or the GMB, this is nevertheless a warning for these unions. They need Blair to agree to a mechanism which would allow them to retain their control over the workforce transferred to subcontractors, particularly guarantees over bargaining rights. Hence the "tough" posturing of union leaders such as John Edmonds and the willingness of some middle-of-the-road union officials to capitalise on the membership's discontent by standing on an anti- government platform in union elections - but, of course, without taking the risk of rocking Blair's boat.

This is the backdrop against which the revolutionary left, and more specifically the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance, has chosen to embark on a campaign over union political funds - on the basis that this issue is, according to these comrades, the most effective lever to precipitate a realisation among union activists that the time has come to distance themselves from the Labour party. As the SWP weekly puts it in its 2 March issue, "many rank-and-file trade unionists are arguing for opening up their unions' political fund, which currently goes exclusively to the Labour Party. (..) It is right to argue for opening up the union's political funds and for unions to fund other political parties, and not just to divert the money into campaigns. There is also an argument to be won that money should not go to pro-capitalist parties such as the Liberal Democrats, but to those offering a genuine alternative to New Labour" - meaning, no doubt, the Socialist Alliance itself.

This orientation raises a whole number of questions, however, ranging from how revolutionaries should relate to trade unions, to the issue of building a new workers' party (and what kind of party) - an issue which was explicitly behind the initiative of setting up the Socialist Alliance in the first place.

The dubious roots of the political fund

Among the revolutionary groups which are involved in this campaign over the unions' political funds, there are various nuances and differences in emphasis. But what all these groups have in common is their acceptance of the political fund system itself as given. But should it be? Should revolutionaries endorse this system, even implicitly? And should they endorse, as a result, the traditional justification given for it by the union machineries which says that it gives the working class a "political voice"?

From this point of view, it is worth recalling the origin and purpose of union political funds.

Up until 1909, the state had never exercised any control over the way the unions used the income from their members' dues. Long before the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, unions had been contributing financially towards the cost of the election campaigns of "sympathetic" candidates. Sometimes these were independent candidates, but more often that not they were Liberals who were seeking to trade a few token concessions to union leaders for their financial support and, more importantly, the votes of their members. Subsequently, the LRC was set up to allow union leaders to stand their own candidates. In 1906, 26 Labour MPs were sent to Westminster as a result of an agreement passed with the Liberals - and formed the Labour party. But as the state did not provide MPs with any income at the time, the responsibility of funding the new Labour MPs' upkeep also fell to the unions.

In 1909, however, W.V. Osborne, a member of the Walthamstow branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (the forerunner of today's RMT), won a House of Lords' ruling which banned the unions from using their funds to support the Labour party or pay wages to its MPs. In all likelihood, this case was engineered by the Tories both to undermine working class representation in Parliament and to weaken the then Liberal government, which was supported in the Commons by Labour's parliamentary group.

However, Lloyd George's Liberal government was in no rush to help out its Labour allies by introducing legislation which would nullify the Osborne judgment, if only because a whole section of the Liberal party was hostile to Labour in the first place and was quite pleased with the ruling. In 1910, however, a wave of explosive strikes broke out, thereby putting pressure on the Liberals to seek the favours of union leaders. So, in 1911, all MPs were granted a £400 annual salary and, in 1913, a Trade Union Act allowed the unions to set up a so-called political fund, separate from their main funds, to which their members would be able to contribute if they so wished. In substance, it is still the same legislation which remains in force today.

Although this Act repealed the Osborne ruling, it effectively placed the finances of the unions under the scrutiny of the state. Of course there was never any question of imposing similar controls and restrictions on donations to political parties by rich sponsors. Even today, while every union must be able to justify its funding of political candidates and campaigns to the Certification Officer, neither Bernie Ecclestone nor the Mittal brothers have to face such scrutiny from the state. As if the pennies earned by working people were some kind of "dirty" money and less legitimate than the millions stolen from them by rich capitalists!

There was another aspect to the 1913 Act, however, which also remains in force today. It said that in those unions where there was a political fund, all members would automatically contribute to it except those who explicitly contracted out of it. This was an obvious sop to the union bureaucracy (and the Labour party by the same token) as the proportion of members who would have been prepared to volunteer to pay higher dues by contracting in was certainly very small. And the odds are that it would also be small today, judging from the big drop in membership when employers have cancelled check off arrangements. If former union members are not too keen to contract in for union membership, they are even less likely to be keen to contract in for the political fund.

The political voice... of the union bureaucracy

In fact the number of trade union members who are contracted out of their unions' political fund, although small, is far from negligible.

Finding recent statistics on this seems to be virtually impossible - which is in itself an indictment of the undemocratic nature of the system. But academics who were given access to the Registration Officer collated his figures for 1995, a year in which union membership was beginning to recover and hostility to the Tories was coming close to its peak among working people. The study they produced shows that out of the membership of the 43 unions which had a political fund at the time, 15% were contracted out. But these 15% were not just from white collar professional associations. For instance, the proportion of contracted out members in MSF was 60% (which may not be so surprising since MSF includes managerial staff) but it was also the same figure for the print union GPMU, while it was 26% in the Fire Brigades Union and 25% in the construction union UCATT.

In 1984, Thatcher's Trade-Union Act stopped short of imposing a rule that union members should contract in' to the political fund (as the Tories had done in 1927, following the defeat of the 1926 General Strike) - proof that despite all the talk about Thatcher's determination to "crush" the unions, she did not want to harm the Labour party and union bureaucracy beyond certain limits. But she did introduce a new rule by which the union leadership had to re-ballot their members on the retention of a political fund every ten years. As it happened, it proved to be a gross miscalculation on her part. Union members saw this new rule as yet another attack by Thatcher against their rights and these ballots as an opportunity to express their opposition to her policies. So the ballots which were organised at the time went overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the political fund and, in some unions which had not had one up to then, of creating one. Ten years later, however, when these ballots took place again towards the mid-1990s, the majority in favour remained large but the turnout was often very low, thereby showing that many union members felt there was no stake for them in this issue.

But should it come as a surprise? The reality is that a large number of union members, if not a majority, are not even aware of the existence of this political fund. The trade union structures are so cut off from the membership that the overwhelming majority of members simply never hear about the political affiliations of their union, the political campaigns in which it is involved or the donations it may have made. Branch meetings, where these issues are supposed to be reported on, are not even attended by all activists, let alone by ordinary members. But in fact, outside the odd donation made by the branch from its own funds, not even the activists are given a say in where the political fund money goes and often they are not even told. Just as with the rest of the union's finances, the political fund is the preserve of some bureaucratic committee at headquarters which is accountable to no-one, except, of course, to a leadership which itself is largely unaccountable to the membership. So why should ordinary members feel they have a stake in this fund?

To all intents and purposes, therefore, the political fund system is both a straightjacket imposed by the state on the political rights of the working class and a well-guarded preserve granted by the state to the union bureaucracy over which the membership has no democratic control. And as long as the bureaucracy remains in control of the unions, the political fund will remain its own political instrument but certainly not that of the membership.

The Fire Brigades Union provides a graphic example of this. In 1999, the FBU conference passed a resolution which instructed the leadership to use the union's political fund to campaign on behalf of its members and stated that funding should not be given automatically to Labour. The following year, the chicken came home to roost during the London mayoral election. The membership of the FBU London region voted overwhelmingly in favour of supporting Livingstone against Dobson, Labour's candidate, and financial support was provided to Livingstone. At that point the FBU's national executive stepped in and asked Livingstone to return the funds he had been given by the London FBU. Livingstone, who has always been noted for his respect for the union bureaucracy, obliged without a murmur.

Since then Andy Gilchrist, another left-winger who stood on a platform of opposition to Blair, has been elected general secretary. And at last year's conference another resolution on the political fund, similar to the one passed in 1999, was adopted against Gilchrist's argument that the timing for it was wrong. This time, delegates were told that implementing this resolution would require a change in the union constitution, which would have to be submitted to and endorsed by the following conference. In the meantime, the FBU machinery, including the "anti- Blairite" Gilchrist, contributed wholeheartedly to Blair's re- election in last June's general election, while restructuring exercises carried out by Labour-controlled local government were threatening more jobs in the Fire Brigade up and down the country! And one can expect yet more excuses not to change anything with regard to the political fund at next year's conference.

The issue of Labour affiliation

The question of the unions' affiliation to the Labour party is obviously intertwined with the question of the political fund system. If only because most unions take their contribution to Labour out of their political fund without members having a say over it - although there are a few unions who have a general political fund and a distinct affiliated political fund to which members can contribute separately.

The Labour leadership, which is always keen to distance itself from anything reminiscent of its past, boasts of the fact that union funding represented only 30% of the party's income last year (compared with 80% ten years ago). And it may well be true, given the number of business tycoons like David Sainsbury and others, who have proved willing to open their wallets to Blair.

But what the Labour party gets out of its 22 affiliated unions (just under one-third of the TUC unions, but almost all the largest) goes much further than financial support. For instance, when John Edmonds was clamouring at a GMB Merseyside conference "there are limits to how much of our members' money we are prepared to pass to this Labour government to put our members out of work", his words sounded suitably threatening. But Edmonds was not quite telling the whole truth. He may well withhold £2m of his union's contribution to Labour over the next four years, as he announced. But what about the 100 Labour MPs sponsored by the GMB? When will they oppose Blair's PFI/PPP in the Commons, under threat of losing the GMB's backing?

Likewise, Billy Hayes the "left" general secretary of the Communications Workers' Union CWU threatens Blair with scaling down the CWU's donation to Labour by £1m if the government goes ahead with allowing private firms to deliver letters. The CWU's conference even threatened to withdraw its support to Labour should Blair privatise the Post Office. And yet the man who is currently in charge of the privatisation process as a minister with the DTI, Alan Johnson, is not only a CWU-sponsored MP but also a former joint-secretary of the union. And there is no question of the CWU withdrawing its support from Johnson!

Indeed, above and beyond finances, affiliated unions provide the Labour party with the resources of their machineries and, in particular, with a ready-made political personnel. And not just MPs, but also full-timers for all sorts of organisational tasks when required and local councillors whose union endorsement can be decisive in getting elected (according to the GMB's own figures, for instance, 2,000 of its members have been elected as local Labour councillors with the union's endorsement).

As far as members are concerned, their union's affiliation to Labour has become increasingly meaningless over time.

A recent survey published by the TUC-sponsored monthly Labour Research provides a striking picture of the general disinterest felt for the Labour link, including among union activists. For instance, 75% of the 301 union branches included in the survey were critical of the unions' support for the Labour government - because of issues such as privatisation, Labour's link to business, its retaining the Tories' employment laws, etc.. One third of these branches were not even nominally affiliated to a Constituency Labour Party - with 37 having recently cancelled their affiliation, either because they saw no point in it or because they opposed the party's policies. But the picture was not much better for Labour among the 195 branches which were nominally affiliated to a CLP. Indeed half of them did not send delegates to CLP meetings and 59% had never sent a delegate to any of Labour's so-called "regional forums" which are supposed to provide a direct channel between the rank-and-file of the party and the leadership.

Obviously, even among the small layer of union activists who take part in branch meetings very few consider that there is any stake at all for them to get involved in the internal life of the Labour party.

However, neither the disaffection of their members and activists for Labour nor the humiliating treatment they get from Blair himself (as an "embarrassing elderly relative", to use the words of the former FBU leader Ken Cameron) prevents the union machineries from sticking to their Labour party affiliation. But this is also because there is something in it for them - benefits that ordinary members will never see but which are very tangible for union bureaucrats. While the unions provide Labour with the resources of their machineries and cadres for all sorts of jobs, the Labour party can offer a whole range of careers to ambitious union bureaucrats. It can offer them political careers in its own ranks, of course. But also, as a party which is tightly integrated in the machinery of the state even when it is in opposition, it can offer union bureaucrats careers and positions in the state machinery itself, in local government and in the many quangos which prosper on the fringes of the state apparatus.

The "trade-union link" between Labour and the unions has always been a two-way relationship. The line between Labour politicians, whose aim is to be loyal managers of the affairs of the capitalists, and union bureaucrats, who seek to be recognised as loyal partners by the same capitalists, has always been very blurred and relatively easy to cross. For more than seventy years, since the setting up of the National Government by MacDonald, in the early 1930s, this community of interests between the union machineries and the Labour party hierarchy has always been stronger than any circumstantial tiffs between them. Beyond the illusions in the Labour party that the unions' endorsement of its policies were able to create among workers, it is this community of interests between two machineries, working together to preserve the existence and stability of the capitalist system, which has been the real content of Labour's "trade-union link". And there is no sign of any change in this respect.

By-passes and delusions

So what can the revolutionary left hope to achieve with its campaign over the unions' political fund?

If trade-union activists are expressing discontent against Blair's policies and looking for a way to fight these policies, it is certainly right for revolutionaries to try to address their discontent and to offer them a perspective. But is it right to claim that "reforming" the political fund can in any way provide an answer to the problem posed? Does it not amount to confining the discontent to exactly the same straightjacket which has paralysed the British working class movement for so long - the so- called "democratic" institution of the trade-unions, which is really a fig leaf for the stranglehold of the union bureaucracy over the working class?

The union activists who have been pressing motions on the political fund at trade-union conferences are convinced that this fund can be an effective means to put pressure on the Labour leadership to change its policies.

But this is also precisely what union leaders such as John Edmonds and Billy Hayes are proposing to do - not because it can be effective, but because it is safe for the union bureaucracy and for Blair's government. In fact, Edmonds may even go further than that. He is already promoting the example of Dr Richard Taylor, the former Kidderminster hospital doctor who got elected as an independent in the last general election. And it is not impossible that the GMB could give its support to at least some anti-privatisation candidates in the coming local election.

From this point of view, the Socialist Alliance's demand, as formulated by the SWP that the money of the political fund "should not go to pro-capitalist parties such as the Liberal Democrats, but to those offering a genuine alternative to New Labour", may even appear less radical and certainly less effective than Edmonds' campaign for anti- privatisation candidates such as Richard Taylor who, at least, have a chance of being elected. Because as long as the problem is posed in terms of the political fund - that is in terms of giving the union membership a voice in the elected institutions of the state - there is no "genuine alternative to New Labour." The Socialist Alliance is simply not a credible alternative in electoral terms, even if its ideas may appear to a minority as a genuine alternative in political terms.

In reality, the fact that the Socialist Alliance has chosen to address discontented union activists exclusively on the issue of the political fund, reflects a much deeper problem in the approach adopted by these comrades.

An article on the political fund published in July last year in Action for Solidarity, a paper produced by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (one of the components of the Socialist Alliance) gives a good outline of the reasoning which is behind this approach.

This article warns against the fact that if the unions went "shopping around (among candidates belonging to various parties) it could be a great step backwards. It would reduce the labour movement to a lobby group, doing deals with big-business parties to see who will throw the best sops. In fact it would fragment the labour movement into a variety of lobby groups, each backing particular parties or MPs more responsive to its particular sectional concerns. It would destroy the idea of working class solidarity and common purpose in politics."

Such a possibility cannot be dismissed completely, of course, although for the time being, there seems to be a lot more reason for the union bureaucracy to stick with the Labour party than to go "shopping around." However, one can only point out that today, in the field of the class struggle, the trade-union movement is already utterly fragmented along sectional concerns and the idea of working class solidarity has been largely destroyed in practice, thanks to the political choices of the union leadership over the past two decades. And if the trade-union movement appeared united behind Labour before the 1997 election thereby providing a sense of "working class solidarity and common purpose in politics" to a section of workers, what has been the impact of Blair's right-wing policies once in power - if not to spread demoralisation and destroy in the view of many workers what had turned out to be an illusion?

It is one thing for revolutionaries to feel in solidarity - and so they should - with those workers who stick to the Labour party out of political loyalty to their class, for lack of seeing any other alternative. But it is quite another thing for revolutionaries to delude themselves and the working class by claiming that today's corrupted Labour and union machineries, which are objective auxiliaries of the capitalists' interests, can in any way represent "the idea of working class solidarity and common purpose in politics" and therefore that they should be preserved at all costs in their present form.

Because this is really the gist of these comrades' reasoning. Of the three possible evolutions that they envisage for the trade- union movement, the one they favour is that "the unions could get together to reassert themselves and restore the political labour movement' as a reality." And this is how: "We can, should and do want to reinvent' a new Labour', or mass working-class party. If it is to be really a mass working-class party, it should be based on, or linked to, the existing mass united organisations of the working class - the trade unions. Authentic socialism can advance only through independent working class politics, not through any substitutes or by-passes."

That revolutionaries should aim at building a mass working-class party - yes, of course. But to claim that this party can emerge from the unions "reasserting themselves" and "restoring the political labour movement as a reality" is another matter. Which unions? Today's sclerotic bureaucratic machineries? When the only kind of politics they can convey are not independent working class politics, but politics aimed at preserving the capitalist order?

No party representing the political interests of the working class, that is fighting to overthrow the existing social order, will ever emerge out of the trade-unions as we know them today. To look towards these bureaucratic machines for an answer to the problem of building tomorrow's working class party is precisely what Action for Solidarity condemns - it is to look for substitutes and by-passes.

Tomorrow's working-class party will have to be a revolutionary party. And yes, it will have to be linked with the "mass united organisations of the working class." But these organisations will have to emerge from the future battles of the working class - battles in which, if it is to make any gains, the working class will have to fight not only the capitalist class but also the bureaucratic apparatuses of today's trade unions.

And in the meantime, revolutionaries will have to use every opportunity to repeat again and again that as long as the discontent and the fighting energy within trade-union ranks go by the rule book and through the union structures, they will be wasted. They will have to convince those union activists who want a real change that as long as they rely on their union leaders to implement the decisions they make at conferences, no matter how radical, instead of seeking the active and conscious mobilisation of workers despite and against the opposition of the union bureaucracy, they will get nowhere.

3 March 2002