Britain - After the RMT's expulsion from the Labour party

Mar/Apr 2004

On 7 February, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union RMT was expelled from the Labour party. It was officially found to be in breach of the party's constitution for allowing its Scottish branches and Regional Council to affiliate to another political party, the Scottish Socialist Party. Significantly, even an icon of the so-called Labour left such as Dennis Skinner failed to vote against the ultimatum issued by Labour's National Executive against the RMT.

It is worth remembering that the National Union of Railwaymen, the NUR, forerunner of the RMT, is generally considered as the historical mover behind the launching of the Labour party. Indeed, it was as a result of a resolution moved at the 1899 TUC by the Doncaster branch of the NUR that the Labour Representation Committee, later to become the Labour party, was set up. Having repeated so often that union members should support this government, despite its anti-working class policies, in the name of Labour's "historic link" with the trade unions, the Labour party leadership has therefore thrown out its most senior "historic" backer in the trade-union movement. The irony of this will not be lost on anyone!

In any case, the RMT's expulsion has immediately prompted speculation about the future of Labour's "trade-union link". All the more so because this expulsion comes after several years of growing tensions between the union machineries and the Labour party leadership. An increasing number of officials and activists have been advocating more or less vocally that their unions should cancel their affiliation to Labour, or at least that they should distance themselves from it. And today, the RMT may not be the only union where these tensions are reaching near to breaking point.

There is, for instance, the possibility of the firefighters' union, the FBU, going down an even more drastic road than the RMT at its annual conference, this coming May. Three resolutions calling for the FBU's disaffiliation from Labour have been tabled for this conference, thereby expressing the anger of many FBU officials at the humiliating treatment they got from this government in their last pay dispute. Meanwhile, in the Communication Workers' Union CWU, one of the large Scottish branches - Edinburgh number 2 - is threatening to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party as a gesture of solidarity with the RMT and defiance towards Blair's Labour leadership.

For most union leaders, the present groundswell of anti-Labour (or rather anti-Blair) opposition is not too much of a problem. Indeed, in so far as the issue of affiliation depends usually on the small layer of officials and activists who take part in union conferences, there is plenty of space for opposing any change by resorting to procedural tricks and delaying tactics - which is what they have done quite successfully over the past few years.

However, keeping the union machineries under control is one thing, but dealing with the membership is quite another. And the current round of compulsory membership ballots over the renewal of union political funds, which began last year, is giving union leaders more serious headaches, due to the wide resentment against Blair and his policies among ordinary members. The union leaders' worst fear is that these ballots might turn into referenda over Blair's policies, should the members' perception of political funds be that their main purpose is to fill Labour's coffers - which is the case in many unions. This is why, in some cases, the union machineries have gone out of their way to mislead workers by claiming that their union's political fund was in no way connected with its affiliation to the Labour party.

One way or another, these developments are raising the issue of the links between trade unions and political parties, whether they should exist, with which parties and what form they should take. At least, this is how the problem is posed by most of the activists involved in these debates. However, the question that should really be answered is whether the existing political links or the proposed ones can reinforce the working class in general, and trade union members in particular, in their ability to fight for their class interests in today's situation.

Does Labour need to retain the "trade-union link"?

Contrary to a common myth, Labour's "trade-union link" was never an instrument of empowerment for union members - let alone for the working class as a whole - whether Labour was in opposition or in office. Nor was it a means for the working class to influence the policy of the Labour party.

In the early days of the 20th century, the Labour party was still expressing, to a certain extent, the dynamism of a fast expanding working class. But even then, it provided nothing more than a Parliamentary expression of this dynamism, which remained impotent because it did not offer the working class any means to defend its collective interests outside the walls of Westminster.

Subsequently, the Labour party became one of the vehicles for the integration of the trade-union machineries into the institutions of the state - and for the defence of their bureaucratic interests. If some Labour MPs did voice, on occasion, the concerns of working people in the Commons, this was not so much due to the trade-union link, than to Labour's dependence on working class votes. As to Labour's policy in office, it was always aimed at managing the affairs of British capital to the best of its interests, within the constraints defined by the current balance of class forces - a balance of forces which was determined by the level of militancy of the working class but certainly not by the "trade-union link".

By the mid-1990s, when Blair rose to the party's leadership, the balance of class forces had been heavily tilted against the working class by over a decade of high unemployment and many setbacks in the class struggle. Labour's shift to Blair's "New Labour" merely reflected this unfavourable balance of class forces.

The Labourite weekly Tribune noted in a recent issue that, in the run-up to the 1997 general election, Stephen Byers, who then described himself as "an outrider for the Blairite project", was arguing that the time could have come for Labour to sever its links with the unions. And, in this respect, Byers probably expressed the feelings of many upstarts in the Labour party at the time, whose model was closer to the US Democratic party and its arms-length relationship with the union machineries.

The position adopted in the same period by Blair's favourite adviser and self-proclaimed mentor, Peter Mandelson, in his book "The Blair Revolution", was somewhat more nuanced in its formulation but not very different in substance. It went like this: "The best way for the concern of trade-unionists to be addressed is by more and more of them becoming individual members of the party. Far from this being the breaking of a link, it is actually the establishment of thousands of individual, unbreakable links. In branch meetings, on campaign committees, in council chambers and in Parliament, trade-unionists will be able to participate fully in Labour's affairs, for themselves." For Mandelson, therefore, the trade-union link was not to be severed but changed from a collective link to an individual one, thereby reducing the influence of the union machineries as organised bodies within the structures of the parties.

It was indeed Mandelson's blueprint which was implemented, first by reducing (but not ending) the unions' block vote and, subsequently, by offering members of Labour-affiliated unions individual party membership at a bargain-basement rate - although this latter measure was not much of a success and did not stop Labour's membership figures from sliding down drastically. At the same time, it was made clear that none of the anti-working class laws introduced under Thatcher would be repealed, not even those affecting the union machineries themselves.

By so doing, the Labour leaders were able to have their cake and eat it. They could pander to the middle-class electorate's prejudices by insisting that the so-called "beer and sandwich days" were gone forever and that there would be no special favours for the union machineries. But, at the same time, they were also able to retain their traditional control over the union machineries and their monopoly over the working class vote. The union machineries were kept at arms length, with only minimal concessions, without Labour having to make the spectacular (and possibly damaging in electoral terms) move of breaking the trade-union link.

But the Labour leadership went even further. Soon after its return to office, it began to float the suggestion that state funding for bona fide political parties might be an effective way of avoiding sleaze, no doubt as a means to get reluctant public opinion used to this idea. Sleaze, however, is not really the issue. Whereas, if need be, such a system could enable Labour to free itself once and for all from its still substantial dependence on the funds it receives from affiliated trade unions.

This is to say that the Labour leadership has no reason to be too worried about losing affiliated unions, either by expelling them or as a result of these unions' own decisions, especially when, as it is the case for the time being, these are relatively small unions such as the RMT or the FBU. This is precisely what the Labour leadership chose to demonstrate by making an example of the RMT, as a warning to the other affiliated unions that they should not rock the boat. Indeed, the decision of the RMT's Scottish organisation to support another party was unusual but not unprecedented. After all, when Ken Livingstone stood against Labour's candidate in the 2000 Greater London election, a number of London-wide union bodies supported him without even being threatened with any disciplinary action.

What is at stake for the union machineries?

There are certainly many union activists and officials who would like to give Blair the elbow, one way or another, not to mention rank-and-file members. But so far, the leaders of all the 21 remaining Labour-affiliated unions are still standing firmly in favour of retaining their link with the Labour party, regardless of their more or less vocal anti-Blairite posturing. And this includes the majority of the so-called "awkward squad", like the CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, who rushed to Edinburgh in an attempt to reverse the decision of his rebellious number 2 branch. Others, like Dave Prentis, the leader of the local government and health workers' union UNISON, have successfully managed to bury the issue of affiliation under a mountain of paperwork portrayed by the union machinery as a "healthy debate"!

Even the very basic demand put forward by many activists that sponsored Labour MPs should at least pledge to defend the sponsoring union's policies - on issues such as the renationalisation of privatised public services, the level of the minimum wage or pension protection, for instance - within Labour party structures and in Parliament, are dismissed by most union leaders as "unrealistic"!

The reasons for the union leaders' opposition to change in this respect is fairly obvious. To take just one example, the general and municipal workers' union GMB, the third largest in terms of membership, which hails the benefits of its affiliation to Labour in the following terms: "Tens of thousands of GMB members are also members of the Labour party and thousands of these GMB members represent the union in the constituency bodies of the party. There are over 2,000 GMB members who are Labour party local councillors. Over 80 Labour MPs are GMB members as are 13 MEP's. There are GMB members in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. There are also GMB members in the Greater London Assembly."

The fact that these GMB members, who are usually part of the union machinery, hold so many positions in elected institutions does not make an inch of difference to the living or working conditions of the GMB rank-and-file, since they are really accountable to no-one. But it does make a difference to the GMB machinery, by offering its officials the prospect of a political career, thereby providing the machinery itself with a significant social weight. Being part of a Labour-affiliated union and having the backing of its machinery is a reliable way of being selected and winning a seat in a local council or, although to a lesser extent, in Parliament. Conversely, the union machineries of affiliated unions can pull strings, using their elected members, to win favours - such as positions on local or regional quangos or subsidies for their various projects.

Of course, being affiliated to the Labour party is not a necessity for the machinery of a union to achieve that kind of social weight. As some officials have suggested in unions such as UNISON, a union could provide its backing to members standing as candidates for different political parties - including the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, for instance, as well as Labour - provided they accept a code of conduct issued by the union leadership and some degree of coordination with the union's bodies.

However, such a course is fraught with uncertainties. Whereas being sponsored by an affiliated union is an advantage in the selection process of Labour candidates, it may not be so in other parties. Besides, outside the Tories, Labour is by very far the party which offers the largest number of elected positions and it is the only one which is ever likely to make it into office.

Of course, in all these calculations, the interests of rank-and-file members play very little role. But is this surprising coming from union machineries which, ever since 1997, have played the "partnership" game demanded by Blair at the expense of their members' jobs and conditions, without any qualms whatsoever?

The RMT's lukewarm "rebellion"

The RMT stands somewhat apart from all the other Labour-affiliated unions in one respect at least - ever since 1997 it has been at odds with Blair's policy. Not only did Labour fail to reverse the Tories' rail privatisation, which it had opposed while in opposition, but Blair announced almost immediately his intention to privatise the London Underground. And for the RMT machinery, quite apart from the resulting worsening of conditions for workers, this policy meant a significant loss of members, due to the atomisation of the former state networks into a web of small companies and subcontractors. Hence a long build up of resentment against Blair's government across the union which allowed Bob Crow to be elected general secretary on an anti-Blair ticket.

The process which led to the RMT's expulsion from Labour began formally when the union's 2002 AGM ratified a proposal by the executive to withdraw support from Labour MPs who failed to promote the RMT's main objectives - namely "public ownership and public accountability of the rail network; increased employment of British seafarers in British shipping; repeal of anti-trade union laws; opposition to PPP in the London Underground."

Even then, it took quite a long time before the RMT's executive dared to put these bold words into action by demanding that deputy prime minister John Prescott, a former seamen's union official and RMT-sponsored MP, should vacate the RMT-owned flat that he rented.

In 2003, the RMT annual conference went one step further by amending rule 26 of its rule book to read: "That this union shall affiliate to the Labour party. The council of executives may be, from time to time, requested by branches or regional councils to explicitly authorise support for other organisations or campaigns in pursuance of the union's policy objectives, subject to not breaching the provisions of these rules..."

This rule change was as measured as its formulation was deliberately vague. There was no question of the RMT retaliating against Blair's vandalising of RMT members' jobs and conditions by cancelling the union's affiliation to Labour. Nor was there any explicit reference to the possibility of the union's local structures affiliating to any political party other than Labour. Moreover, the council of executives was taking no risk, since it retained full control over all local decisions in such matters. There was no question of allowing branches to affiliate to just any organisation they wished!

At that stage, this rule change in the RMT's constitution still remained in the realm of gesture politics, allowing the leadership to claim that it was taking a bold stand against Blair, while avoiding an irreversible break with the Labour party machinery.

However, developments in Scotland brought matters to a head. One after the other, all Scottish branches voted to request the council of executives' authorisation to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party. They were soon followed by the union's Regional Council. Had the RMT leadership envisaged such a possibility, we do not know. But whether it had or not, refusing to go along with these requests would have meant splitting the union right down the middle on this issue and even, possibly, taking the risk of a Scottish breakaway. The RMT leadership could not afford that and willingly or not, it had to go along with it.

Eventually a Special General Meeting convened in Glasgow on 6 February voted by 42 votes to 8 to "support other parties as well as the Labour party" within the criteria defined in the constitution and approved the affiliation to the SSP requested by the Scottish branches and Regional Council.

By that time, Labour's National Executive had already issued an ultimatum threatening the RMT with expulsion. Significantly, however, it was stressed at this SGM that the RMT group of Labour MPs would continue to function regardless. Moreover, a campaign for the RMT's reaffiliation to the Labour party was discussed and, apparently, will be launched soon - never mind the fact that this party is opposed to the RMT's objectives, carries out policies which go against the interests of its membership, in addition to having expelled the union! How much more humiliation are RMT members supposed to swallow from the Labour leadership?

How about workers' democracy?

At the 6 February SGM, Bob Crow made a fiery speech, stating among other things: "The RMT has reached this decision through the democratic structures of the union. No political party can dictate our policies or interfere with our internal structures." "Democratic", maybe, but not to the extent of seeking the opinion of the whole membership on any of this.

In this respect, a reply given by a Scottish RMT activist to a suggestion made on the union's internet discussion list that a referendum of the membership should have been organised over the issue of affiliation to the SSP, puts in a nutshell the general attitude of the RMT machinery towards rank-and-file members: "A referendum of all members does not mean participation, take a look at the last 3 years referendum ballots and look at the return rate. I am told that in the recent Scottish Regional Organisers ballot, 1500 papers were returned from a little over 6,000. If people can't be bothered to use their votes to elect a direct representative why would they use it to decide on this issue? Participation levels at branches are also low in Scotland, even the Regional Council does not have a full attendance, but at least if anyone cares enough about the issue, they will come to a meeting and debate and ultimately vote."

The disaffection of union members towards postal ballots is unquestionable. But if the turnout for an organisers ballot is only 25%, does it show only that members "can't be bothered" or does it also indicate that members do not see any stake for them in this election and that, therefore, there must be something wrong in the way the union operates? Likewise for attendance at branch meetings. Very little effort is put into inviting rank-and-file members to these meetings, or to making them feel at home by putting issues that concern them on the agenda or helping them to contribute, or even by choosing a time and location which are accessible for as many members as possible. "Democracy" as defined by Bob Crow and the RMT activist quoted above, is effectively confined to a thin layer of activists who come to branch meetings and are supposed to make decisions, not only on behalf of the whole membership, but in most cases without members being informed of the issues involved or the decisions made!

This contemptuous attitude towards ordinary members is not confined to the RMT, of course. It can be found in just about every union. In some of them, branch meetings are even exclusively reserved for reps or officials, with ordinary members being allowed to meet only once or twice a year! Where branches are more lively and member-friendly in the way they operate, it is usually due to the initiative of local activists, not because of the union pursuing a systematic policy aimed at involving the membership.

Yes, the disaffection of the union membership is a fact. But why should it be otherwise after all these years in which the union machineries have been stitching up deals with the bosses, as part of Blair's "partnership", behind the backs of their members, without making themselves accountable to them, let alone consulting them on anything, except sometimes after the event? And this applies as much to the RMT, despite its occasional radical posturing, as it does to every other union. It is not for nothing that most union members see their membership as little more than a way of getting a few benefits, such as legal assistance, an additional health insurance or cheap mortgages, but certainly not as a means to defend their collective interests.

Politics and the unions

What is true of the day-to-day running of the unions is even more true when it comes to their political funds and affiliations.

Even union activists do not feel all that much concerned by these issues, as was shown by a survey conducted by the Labour Research Department in 2001 (no other survey has been done since on this subject, maybe because the TUC found the results too appalling to be published again?). Out of the 301 branches surveyed, 193 were affiliated to a Constituency Labour party, but 95 never sent any delegate to CLP meetings. Moreover, 3/4 of the affiliated branches were dissatisfied with their relationship with the Labour party. Only a few branches provided indications on the numbers of political levy payers, but those which did indicated a sharp decline due to dissatisfaction towards Labour in office.

When it comes to rank-and-file members, there is a lot of confusion about the way the political fund is used. The origin of the political fund is a piece of legislation passed in 1913, which made it compulsory for unions to set up a separate fund for financing anything outside union business - be it contributing to a party's finance, funding a candidate in an election or giving money to any form of campaign not strictly related to union issues. The idea was that although paying a sub was compulsory for union members, contributing to the political fund had to be optional. Logically, in most Labour-affiliated unions, their contribution to Labour comes out fo this political fund, with a few exceptions, like Unison, which has a political fund and a separate Labour affiliation fund.

In 1985, after Thatcher imposed on unions that they ballot their members on the retention of their political funds every ten years, workers reacted against what they saw as yet another attack, by voting "Yes" in large numbers: the results gave an average 83% "Yes" votes on a 51% turnout. Ten years later, the result was still an average 82% "Yes", but on a 38% turnout. This was blamed on the fact that unions were no longer allowed to organise workplace ballots. However, by that time Labour's language was already full of free market and other pro-business phraseology and the odds are that this also played a role in reducing the turnout. As to the current round of ballots, it is still too early to draw any definite conclusions. But the only large union whose results are known, the engineering union Amicus, shows an even lower turnout (28%) with a reduced 72% "Yes" vote.

From the 1995 round of political fund ballots, however, one can draw the conclusion that the vast majority of members did not see any stake for them in their unions' political funds - which, in and of itself, is an indication of how far removed the present debates about political affiliation are, from the concerns and real problems faced by the membership.

This is not to say that politics has no role to play in the unions, quite the contrary. But not the kind of parliamentary lobbying which underpins union affiliation to Labour, or the SSP for that matter - which only serves as an excuse to deny the need for the working class to take matters into its own hands and go onto the offensive, if it is to defend its interests against the capitalists, let alone make any gains.

Nor should trade unions be allowed to become the backyard of one political party or another. Unions, as the word implies, are designed to unite all workers on the basis of their class interests, regardless of their political views. They should operate in such a way as to allow all views to express themselves democratically on the basis of this community of interests. This is what workers' democracy should be about - rather than imposing the views of a minority of activists or even those of a majority as expressed in a ballot. By recognising equal rights for minority views, such workers' democracy can be the cement of workers' unity.

As well as fighting instruments for the working class, the unions should be its political school. In today's society, the state is the main pillar of the power of the capitalist class, both in political and economic terms, as well as the coordinator of the on-going class war waged by the capitalists against workers. As a result, workers cannot defend their collective interests by fighting just one employer. They have to face the attacks of the capitalist class as a whole and those of its state. These are the kind of politics which will be vital for the future struggles of the working class and the kind of political education that workers should acquire through the unions.