By Colin Foster
The Labour Party has expelled the railworkers' union RMT. The Communication Workers' Union has condemned the expulsion and called on the Labour Party to discuss with the RMT. But many socialists have rejoiced, saying that the RMT's expulsion should and will be followed by many other unions deciding of their own accord to break links with Labour.
In fact that is unlikely.
The Fire Brigades Union conference in March will have motions before it for disaffiliation. It is the exception.
Past CWU conferences have seen lively arguments about the political fund. However, last year's failed even to reach a motion calling for branches to be able to support other political parties. General Secretary Billy Hayes says he wants to "reclaim the Labour Party" for the working class, but secured the defeat of a motion specifying mild but definite steps in that direction.
Motions for this year's CWU conference are due in by 19 March. There is as yet no sign of a groundswell for disaffiliation.
The TGWU and GMB have no conferences this year, and the left in those unions is mostly Labour-oriented.
When AEEU and MSF merged to form Amicus, they adopted a rule book (2003) stating: "The union and any body or part of the union shall not affiliate to or give support to the candidates of any other political party... than the Labour Party". It puts control in the hands of Regional Political Conferences "of [Amicus] delegates to CLPs and a delegate elected by and from the Labour Party members present at each Regional Sector Conference".
This rule book can be revised in 2005, and thereafter only every six years. The left slate which recently won 23 out of 48 seats on the Amicus executive had nothing about the political fund in its platform.
In 2001 the public services union Unison agreed to conduct a review of its political funds. Unison, as a legacy of the merger between previous unions which created it, has two political funds, one affiliated to the Labour Party and one not.
Last year the review reported, with a lot of warm words but no real proposals for change.
At the 2003 Unison conference, one left-wing motion, from the Socialist Party, called for a third political fund; another, from the rest of the left, for more political assertiveness by the union within the framework of Labour affiliation. General Secretary Dave Prentis got both motions defeated, claiming that both were soft-soap for disaffiliation.
Unison's political stance remains feeble. Accountability is difficult, because control of the Affiliated Political Fund is separated off from the general union structures, and left to bureaucratic committees run solely by card-carrying Labour Party members (who are only a small minority of APF levy payers).
Socialists in Unison hope to begin to crack that barrier this year by motions to conference calling for the APF committee to be elected by all APF levy payers.
Before March 2005, Unison will ballot its members on whether to keep its political funds or not. Legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in 1984 obliged all unions with a political fund to ballot their members every 10 years on keeping that fund.
The Tories hoped and expected that many unions would vote to scrap their political funds. In the first round of ballots, in 1985-6, 83% of union members voted yes, with a turnout of 51%. All unions voted to keep their political funds, and twenty unions who had not had political funds voted to start them.
The second round of political fund ballots, in 1995-6, had 82% for keeping the funds.
Almost all left-wing union activists campaigned for yes votes. In Unison's upcoming ballot, however, the Socialist Party will argue for a no vote, on the grounds that the ballot should include other options as well as yes or no to the existing structure.
All other unions with political funds must ballot too. Some have already done so. Amicus voted 71% to keep its political fund in June 2003. Connect voted 81% yes in February 2003. Prospect voted to establish a political fund where it did not have one before.
In November 2003, the broadcasting union BECTU balloted on whether to remain affiliated to the Labour Party. This was a decision by its union conference, rather than a legal requirement. Two-thirds voted to stay affiliated.
The TGWU is now balloting its members. The left-wing leadership of the National Union of Journalists is ballotting its members on whether to start a political fund. It faces threats from celebrity journalists like Jon Snow and Jeremy Paxman to quit the union if a majority votes yes.
The public services union PCS is likely to ballot on starting a political fund.
Those who see the RMT's expulsion as a signal for instant mass disaffiliation forget that the RMT has one of the highest rates of political levy-paying, and conducted at least a partial fight to assert itself politically within the Labour structures. It stopped sponsoring Labour MPs who opposed basic RMT policy, and created a new parliamentary group of loyal Labour MPs (which continues). It fought at last year's Labour conference to get the Iraq war properly debated. The affiliation of some of its Scottish branches to the SSP was a positive political move, not just a gesture of disillusion with New Labour.
The RMT did leave right-winger Mick Cash as its member on Labour's National Executive, where he voted for the Iraq war in defiance of union policy. But it did not jump straight from political inertia to a break with New Labour.
The RMT now has to debate its political direction at its conference in June. It has voted to retain affiliation to the Labour Party in its constitution. But the orientation of union leader Bob Crow and many RMT activists is closer to syndicalism (the idea that the union is politically self-sufficient).
If the RMT can be convinced to launch a broad political campaign for renewed labour representation, then it can become a valuable political leaven in the union movement.
In other unions, like Unison, if activists try to use plebiscitary majorities based on the negative disillusion of politically inactive members as a springboard, that may catapult us over the obstacle of conservative Labourite union leaderships - but into nothing positive.