New transport union leader Tony Woodley has pledged to coordinate a trade-union drive "to get Labour back representing working-class people".
After winning election as the new General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Woodley declared on 1 June that:
"A fighting T&G will help coordinate like-minded unions to campaign to put the 'Labour back in the party' on a range of issues. I'll fulfil my promise to call a summit of affiliated unions to discuss how to get Labour back representing working-class people...
"It means representing members rather than ministers as we take the arguments for progressive policies into every area of the Labour party to which we are affiliated."
Two days later, the conference of the train drivers' union ASLEF unanimously resolved "to reclaim the Labour Party as a party not only of peace, but also one in which internal democracy and accountability are re-established" and which is based on the "values of socialism".
According to the ASLEF website, union general secretary Mick Rix "reminded delegates of Lenin's advice on the subject of the Labour Party". "We must fight from within and take control of the Party".
The same conference also voted not to back the official Labour candidate for Mayor of London, but instead to help finance the campaign of outgoing Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was the preferred candidate of unions and Labour members in 2000 but blocked by a Blairite stitch-up. Mick Rix said he did not expect this support for an independent candidate to disrupt or prejudice the union's position within the Labour Party.
On 9 June, the conference of the GMB general union voted to review its donations to individual constituency Labour parties and to withdraw cash if an MP does not share the union's "aims, values and priorities".
About 100 MPs supported by the GMB will be invited to interviews by a panel. Union leaders said that high-profile New Labour figures like Peter Mandelson could lose union financial backing.
The new GMB general secretary, Kevin Curran, was elected as the right-wing choice in a contest with London GMB official Paul Kenny, but has signalled that he will work with "awkward squad" union leaders like Rix and Woodley on Labour Party questions.
The rail union RMT has already done a similar review of its support for Labour MPs, and withdrawn backing from many, including deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Its conference, starting 29 June, has a proposal from the Executive to remain affiliated to the Labour Party but open up the possibility of the Executive also approving proposals from branches to support other organisations and campaigns.
Other motions, supported by general secretary Bob Crow, strike a different note: they want the union to start supporting a range of parties, including the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru and the Greens as well as the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance, and to cut down its affiliation to the Labour Party to a token 5000 members.
The broadcasting union BECTU, at its conference on 17 May, decided to ballot its members on whether or not to continue its affiliation to the Labour Party.
Unison leader Dave Prentis has called for a review of Labour Party structures to restore an effective union voice in the party. Probably only muffled echoes of this debate will be heard at the Unison conference, starting on 17 June, because the union runs its "Affiliated Political Fund" through a structure of committees and conferences separate from the general union decision-making.
Another big union, Amicus, will be meeting for its MSF and AEEU section conferences in the week from 21 June. Its new general secretary, Derek Simpson, has aligned himself with figures like Woodley and Rix in the "awkward squad".
Back in 1998, Solidarity raised the idea of the unions forming a Labour Representation Committee for the fight against Blairism. The slowness of the union fightback against New Labour's Thatcherite policies meant that the call gathered little momentum then. With the rise of the new "awkward squad" it gains new relevance.
The changes made in the Labour Party have radically reduced union input. An army of media people, advisers, and think-tankies, most of them people with no links to the labour movement, sits on top of the party. The unions still have a voice in the National Executive Committee and the Labour Party conference, but both that voice, and the powers of the NEC and conference, are radically diminished.
Perhaps most important, such union say as there is in the Labour Party is far less subject to control by the rank and file.
Pre-Blair, any issue arousing serious concern in the working class could be guaranteed to reach Labour Party conference, given only a concerted effort by even a small group of activists, and once it was on the agenda union delegations had to vote in line with union policy. The limitations on democratic rank-and-file control over the union voice in the Labour Party were essentially the limitations of democratic rank-and-file control within the unions themselves, rather than barriers set up between the unions and Labour.
Now, many of the essential political processes in the Labour Party happen behind closed doors, in Policy Forums for example, and are managed by top officials with little rank-and-file input.
So, for example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, every Labour Party conference would see a debate on trade-union rights. Year after year, the debate would be centred round a hard-lined composite based on text drafted by supporters of Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity). Year after year, a "softer" text would win the vote, with the backing of the big unions - then much more solidly under right-wing control than today - but even that "softer" text had to be drafted to correspond to union policies, and so would be more radical than the Labour leaders wanted.
Since the Labour government took office, despite most unions wanting repeal of Tory anti-union laws, the Blairites have been able to use the new structures and procedures - and the sluggishness and timidity of union leaders - to keep the issue off the agenda.
The moves by Woodley and others to reverse this political disenfranchisement of the working class are very important and very welcome.
To call for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party sounds radical, but in fact is an acceptance of defeat. So also, in a different way, is Bob Crow's proposal to "diversify" to supporting "friends of labour" in a range of political parties both within and outside the labour movement. It is a reversion to the old days, before the Labour Party was founded, when the unions would concentrate their efforts on backing particular Liberal MPs who were favourable to the unions, and on getting selected trade-unionists adopted as Liberal candidates. Socialists argued then for the unions and the working class to have their own party, under their own control, instead of looking for friends among middle-class politicians - and our message today should be the same.
Woodley and Rix are right to campaign for the remaining union positions of strength within the structures of New Labour to be used in a way accountable to union members and to working-class interests.
To workers who are attracted to the idea of union disaffiliation from the Labour Party we should spell out a positive alternative:
- Reducing union contributions to the Labour Party to the flat affiliation fee, ending extra donations.
- Making union representatives in New Labour structures fight for union policy. Every single one of the union reps on Labour's National Executive, including those from the most anti-war unions, supported the Government line on the Iraq war! A motion to RMT conference calls for that union's rep to be replaced.
- Withdrawing union sponsorship of MPs and candidates who flout or oppose union policies, as the RMT has done and the GMB plans to do.
- Using union funds for independent working-class political campaigning.
- And, most important, organising for direct action against the government in the interests of the members.
This should be combined with a campaign to remove those union leaders who have allowed Blair to pursue his project, abjectly failing to put up any real fight and in many ways positively collaborating with the Blair project.
Those who want to change the unions' relationship with New Labour are right - but the way to do that is through a positive fight to restore working-class representation in politics, not just negative gestures of protest. Support for the Labour Party and its candidates should not be unconditional. The unions must reserve the right to back independent working-class candidates, subject to the fullest democratic consultation of their members, preferably through workplace ballots.
The central question is rank-and-file control, and the building of rank and file trade union groups which combine the fight for labour representation in politics with the fight to democratise the trade unions.
Woodley is right to call for a "summit" of union leaders to organise a fight in the Labour structures. But it should not remain just a matter of "summits".
Build a Labour Representation Committee - not just as a cabal of left-wing trade-union leaders, but as a broad-based rank-and-file movement, with representative conferences! And don't wait for Woodley! Start now, by organising local "labour representation" conferences to debate the issues, review local options, and coordinate activity.