Resist Blairite drive to reduce union voice in the Labour Party

Submitted by AWL on 29 November, 2006 - 3:36

Union-Labour link crisis: Gordon Brown is part of the same problem as Blair and Hayden Philips.

By Jack Haslam

The widely reported proposals in the draft version of the Hayden Philips report on party funding have provoked what appears to be a very serious crisis within the Labour Party.

If implemented, the proposals, which would bring in a donation limit of £50,000 per year and require all political levy payers to renew their levy every year, would effectively undermine the trade union/Labour Party link, by making it an organisational nightmare and financial burden to operate.

It is important for socialists active in the labour and trade union movement to understand that the proposals in the report are just a stalking horse. The real danger to the trade union link will come, not from the proposals in the report itself, but from an internal labour movement deal on the issue which will most likely open the door to a reduction of the trade union vote at Labour Party conference.

The tried and tested method of party management adopted by the New Labour machine has always been to put on the agenda something outlandish, shocking and provocative in order to get through something only slightly less obnoxious. Opposition focuses on the most outrageous elements of what is proposed, the leadership appears to concede and back down on in the face of this opposition and then a deal is done to get through what they always intended in the first place. The result is that the leadership get what they want and the opposition can continue to delude themselves that they’ve had an impact and somehow limited the worst excesses of New Labour.

This is exactly the process that is at work at the moment.

A few weeks ago it was starting to look like an attempt to effectively drive the trade union movement out of the labour Party was to be the ‘crowning glory’ of Tony Blair’s legacy.

That is how things seemed to be judged by reports that some of Blair’s close political advisors had been encouraging Hayden Philips to pursue the agenda of attacking the union/labour link. Blair himself did much to encourage this mood. At a committee meeting in the House of Commons he made a point of saying that the government would be in a difficult position if it did not implement whatever proposals Philips came up with.

What then happened was a storm of protest. This report from the Daily Mirror political correspondent gives a flavour of events in the House of Commons last week.

Had Blair wandered into a gathering of his own MPs this week, the leader would have encountered a lynch mob accusing him of high treason.

The ugly meeting behind the supposed privacy of the closed doors of a Commons committee room vowed to resist to the bitter end proposals to cap union donations at £50,000.

"What an irony," moaned Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover, "that trade union money is the only clean money in politics and it's under attack because of loans-for-Lordships."

Eccles MP Ian Stewart vowed to "fight it to the death" while North Durham's Kevan Jones suggested "the lights are on but no one is at home in Downing Street".

Chorley's Lindsay Hoyle demanded "people in the dark cellar of No 10 must be sorted out." And Blaydon's Davey Anderson, a ministerial aide supposed to loyally back the leadership, complained: "Someone at No 10 is doing the Tories' dirty work for them."

The Labour MPs suspect ultra-Blairites in No 10 are encouraging an inquiry into party funding to shackle unions - and permitting the pockets of taxpayers to be picked to finance parties.

The Premier refused to comment on the crisis yesterday, dodging questions until Phillips delivers his report next year.

This mood formed the backdrop to moves to call an emergency NEC to discuss the matter.

What came out of the meeting looks like a defeat for Blair.

The NEC voted unanimously for a motion which says that the Party will vigorously oppose any attempt to sever the link. However, it stopped short of either criticising Blair or instructing him to do anything. After a lot of hot air was released all that actually came out of the meeting was that Blair will report to the NEC on proposals that come out of the inquiry.

The reality is that Blair still has a free hand to put what he wants to Hayden Philips and could still come back to the NEC with an ultimatum.

While this was happening on the NEC the trade union leadership were trying to get some kind of clarity from Gordon Brown on his stance on the matter. Brown would not comment on Hayden Philips, but he did express the view that the situation in which the party leadership is regularly voted down at conference by the trade unions could not continue.

This fits with an agenda that was raised in 2005 by education minister Alan Johnson, who is the former leader of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and this year by |Lord Bill Morris, former General Secretary of the TGWU.

This is how Morris’s words were reported in the Guardian.

Trade unions must modernise the way they give financial support to the Labour party, a union elder statesman warns today. On the eve of his elevation to the House of Lords, Bill Morris, who for 12 years was leader of the TGWU, admits that looming "mega-mergers" between big unions could soon create an unacceptable concentration of power at a time when their falling membership diminishes their authority.

"If you're not speaking for your members, you cannot be speaking for the party. There needs to be radical reform and the trade unions need to recognise that it's a new situation, a new agenda. And a new relationship has to emerge," Lord Morris tells GMTV's Sunday programme. He urges a party-union review to reshape the way they work together.

A review to look at the relationship between the unions and the party as a mechanism for reducing the union vote at labour conference is a long standing item on the New Labour agenda. It is a real goal vital to the continuation of ‘the project’, not a show of smoke and light designed to distract attention. The idea was actually floated by Blair himself just before the cash for peerages and loans for Lordships scandal blew up in his face.

The Labour Party is still financially dependent on trade unions to continue functioning. But the trade unions remain a political embarrassment and a potential threat to the neo-liberals of New Labour.

Bringing in enough state funding to fill the gap would be difficult, therefore a mechanism has to be found to bring about a managed reduction of trade union involvement in the party while keeping the existing level of funding. This creates a difficult negotiating position for the Blair/Brown faction as they have to convince the trade union leaders of the need to reduce their say in the party, so they can still continue giving the party the same amount of money!

Fortunately for New labour many of today’s trade union leaders share the same defining characteristic that Lloyd George observed in Jimmy Thomas the old right wing leader of the rail workers. Lloyd George said of Thomas that you could always count on his selfishness. Lloyd George did many times, especially when he wanted to disrupt a united trade union front.

A number of union leaders would like to be rid of the embarrassing problem of being put on the spot at Labour Party conference by having to put forward union policies against the government. If they can rid themselves of this irksome task and at the same time secure some small crumb which they can present as concessions from the Brown, then they may be all too willing to play ball. The obvious candidates for this role are Simpson of Amicus and Prentis of Unison. Prentis especially as firstly, he is unhappy at the emergence of the Amicus-TGWU union and the consequent reduced status of his own union in both the Labour Party and the TUC. So a deal which reduced the new union’s status in the Labour party would be liveable for him. Second, he is looking for cards to play with Gordon Brown who controls public spending, and thirdly, Unison’s particularly bureaucratic structures allow the Labour conference delegation more leeway than in other unions.

Simpson is also a big danger, not least because he is effectively a tool of the old AEU/EETPU Labour right wing. His problem is that he would have to get his policy through the new union which includes the TGWU whose General Secretary Tony Woodley is most likely to take a clear line of opposition to any further attacks on the link. So if some of the union leaderships are going to play Brown’s game and look for a deal the first person to make a move would most likely be Dave Prentis.

That is exactly what took place at this week’s General Council of the TUC. Dave Prentis, General secretary of Unison, put forward an apparently harmless proposal that could have very serious consequences. He claimed that the Hayden Philips proposals would have consequences for unions with non-party affiliated political funds. This is questionable to say the least, but on that basis he asked TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, the most craven agent of the government in the entire labour movement, to convene a meeting of all the unions with general political funds. Barber is then to liaise with the affiliated unions with the purpose of making representations to Downing Street and Hayden Philips.

In other words, Prentis has given Brendan Barber the remit to try and come up with a deal.

Barber has a vested interest in 'doing over' the union link and helping Brown.

With the trade union movement increasingly dominated by big unions, and especially with the impending merger of Amicus and the TGWU, the TUC faces a crisis of identity. What is it there for? What political role should it play?

If the labour union link can be reduced and remoulded, that gives new importance to the TUC as a 'political voice' for the trade union movement. Barber thus has his own narrow bureaucratic organisational interest in seeing the union-Labour link dismembered. It would make him an apparently important person in his own right, rather than just a cipher for government initiatives.

The contours of a deal aren’t that hard to work out:

1. Spending caps are brought in, thus implementing Labour Party conference policy
2. Some form of Trade Union exemption from the donation cap.
3. A ‘compromise’ on how regularly political levy payers have to re-affirm their commitment. 5 years would be a possibility as it is half way between the existing law and the Hayden Philips proposals.
4. The sting in the tail: in return for 1, 2 and 3 the trade unions accept an internal Labour Party review of the mechanisms of the link.

This lets the ‘soft left’ claim a victory over Blair, but gives Brown the means he requires to push through further attacks on the union link.

The role of some of the trade union leaders will then be to deliver their side of the deal. This would mean being prepared to accept a reduced say at party conference and also some individualisation of the way the unions are represented in the party in order to bring the structure into line with the legal requirement to register each levy payer as an individual donor or associate member. This would mean implementing some of the proposals that were raised and then dropped by the ‘modernisers’ back in 1993 when John Smith started the first stage of serious attempts to weaken the union link.

How things develop in the unions depends decisively on what the rank and file does. There will be a big fight in all the major unions over this. It will almost certainly break up the ‘big four’ or ‘big five’ on a political lines.

It is absolutely vital that the leadership of unions like the TGWU actually carry out the policies passed over the last few years and organise an effective drive to get trade unionists active in the party once more and to fight to give some meaning and content to the link.

While the immediate focus point will be the struggle to defend the union link it is absolutely vital that we do not conduct this battle in a defensive spirit. We need to put the argument for strengthening and democratising the union link, increasing the say of the unions in the party and restoring the rights of all CLPs and affiliates at conference. Most important of all though is to remember that this is first and foremost an ideological and political battle.It is the question of whether the workers need a class party of their own.

Only by putting class - not narrow sectional trade unionism, but class - at the core of the political resistance to the attacks on the union link will we be able to rally the political forces needed to win. Our job is to address the central political problem within the workers’ movement and beyond it amongst radical young people: that large numbers of the rank and file activists either see no alternative to Blair and Brown’s neo-liberalism, or if they do reject neo-liberalism, see no means with which to fight for an alternative. We have to raise the idea that if you think a different world is possible, you have to make a different kind of labour movement a reality: a movement that fights for our class as fiercely as Blair and Brown fight for theirs.