The Tories have used the BA dispute, and the membership of BA workers in the Unite union, to depict the Labour Party as a “prisoner” of the trade unions. Their campaign is being supported by right-wing papers like the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, with the latter publishing an “expose” of a supposed Communist Party plot to take control of the Labour Party and the government. They say Unite is controlled by the Communist Party.
The Lib Dems have also chimed in, with shadow chancellor Vince Cable using his 29 March TV debate with Alistair Darling and George Osborne to attack Labour for being funded by “militant unions” as well as the more usual, and not unrelated, witch-hunting words about striking workers “holding the country to ransom”.
All claim that union involvement in politics is undemocratic. There is now renewed speculation that, if the Tories win, they will legislate to make it difficult or impossible for the unions to fund a political party.
What is never explained is why union-funded and controlled-politics is dangerous, illegitimate and undemocratic, but big business channelling millions to the Tories and Lib Dems (and New Labour) is fair and democratic.
Yet the unions are, for all their flaws, democratic organisations through which millions of workers without the individual wealth and influence of, say, an Ashcroft can attempt to exercise some power over their basic conditions of life, in the first place their work, but also the overall shape of society. All workers — including unemployed workers — can join these organisations and with collective organisation can, or potentially can, change their policy, direction and leadership.
By contrast big business funding of politics represents a real “special interest”, a mechanism to get political parties to protect the profits and privileges of a privileged minority.
In other words, this is an argument about class. Supporting and advocating a political voice for the unions is about organising the labour movement to more effectively fight in the interests of the working class — and right now to more effectively fight for BA workers — and in the interests of democracy.
Unfortunately, the unions are in reality very far from “controlling the Labour government” and the left and the rank and file are far from controlling the unions. Unite hands over £11 million for Labour’s election campaign, but Gordon Brown continues to bully the BA workers and back their strike-breaking bosses. The unions have some voting power in Labour’s structures, but their leaders have not used these or other means to fight for or enforce even union policies.
We will fight for the unions to really assert their influence in the Labour Party and in politics more generally. Rank and file workers in the unions need to take control from the self-serving bureaucrats who have shored up Brown and Blair in New Labour.