A central theme of John McDonnell's campaign will be getting the unions to develop an independent political voice and to challenge New Labour. How far advanced is the debate over political representation in the unions and how exactly do the unions relate politically to the Labour Party? Martin Thomas reports.
For most of the Labour Party's history, the trade unions controlled 90% of the vote at party conference and a majority on the National Executive Committee. From 1928 to 1980 the relationship was symbolised by the Labour Party's central office being a sub-section of the Transport and General Workers' Union headquarters in London.
Mostly, the Labour leaders and conservative union leaders worked together against the rank and file. But the channels were there by which organised workers, if they could control their union leaders, could also control the Labour Party.
The unions still control nearly 50% of the vote at Labour Party conference. A series of changes have however made political input from rank-and-file trade unionists much more difficult.
• The National Executive has become much more like a consultative committee for the party leaders than a decision-making body, and the unions now have only 12 out of 32 members. It publishes no minutes and does not take motions from unions or local Labour Parties. Union representatives on the National Executive act under very little scrutiny from their union members, or even their union leaderships.
• Decision-making is further shielded from rank-and-file scrutiny by a body called the National Policy Forum, which meets two or three times a year, and, once again, publishes no minutes. The trade unions have only 30 out of 183 reps on the Forum.
• At the Labour Party conference, only four motions from the unions and four motions from the local Labour Parties are allowed. Under "high Blairism" it was no motions from the local Labour Parties. Party officials still usually manage to find tricks to whittle the four down to fewer.
The four motions from the unions are decided, de facto, by consultation between the "big four" unions, Unison, Amicus, TGWU, and GMB, which between them control some 40% of the unions' near-50% of the party conference vote.
The small number of motions from local Labour Parties is also an important factor in limiting effective union input. Local Labour Party motions used to be "leverage" to bring left-wing policies passed by union conferences onto the party conference floor, against the wishes of the general secretaries, and once they were there, union delegations pretty much had to vote as their union conference policy indicated.
• Formally, the status of conference as "the ultimate authority in the party" is unchanged. De facto, many years of Blair and Brown saying flatly that they will ignore party conference decisions, and the union leaders making no protest, have changed things.
It is not only that Labour Party conference resolutions do not bind the Labour government. They no longer bind, direct, or guide anyone. There is no committee or organisation that has any obligation to act on the resolutions, or even to read them.
In the last few years, the "big four" unions have repeatedly pushed motions through party conference opposing Government policy on important issues. If such a thing had happened at any previous time in the Labour Party's history, it would have meant a huge crisis in the party.
Now it means only that the leaders of the big unions are using party conference to let off some steam and to signal to their members that they dissent somewhat from Blair. For union policy really to become a factor in the party, an altogether different level of mobilisation and determination is now needed.
Changes within the unions have also had made rank-and-file political input more difficult.
In Unison, the union's voice within the Labour Party is controlled not by the union conference or the union's Executive, but by a parallel structure called Unison Labour Link. Participation in Unison Labour Link is restricted to individual Labour Party members (i.e. the vast majority of Unison members who pay political-fund money into the Labour Party are excluded), and takes place through inaccessible regional meetings.
Motions to Unison conference asking that the union do this or that politically will be ruled out of order on the grounds that the issue is the property of Unison Labour Link.
Amicus has a similar but even more inaccessible structure. Its national "political committee" is elected from regional conferences which are open only to Amicus delegates to local Labour Parties.
The rules proposed for the new union to be formed next year by merger of Amicus and TGWU suggest something similar. "There shall be regional and national political committees for members who are individual members of the Labour Party". A "clarification" has been granted, saying that the national political committee will be under the control of the general union Executive.
In other words, half the union motions to Labour Party conference, and, maybe, from next year, three out of four, are controlled by committees which are sealed off from rank and file opinion short of an epochal upheaval in the unions. The fourth motion, the GMB's, is not much subject to rank and file influence either.
Unions where the membership has more political say, like the CWU (the next-biggest after the four, with 250,000 members), have no chance of putting motions to Labour Party conference. They can do things like re-targeting their contributions to Labour Party funds - for example, sponsoring only those Labour MPs and candidates who back basic union policies - and the RMT did that before it was disaffiliated by the Labour Party. But they can have a decisive influence only by spurring the bigger unions into activity.
As for the four biggest unions outside the Labour Party, NUT (360,000 members), PCS (320,000), NASUWT (200,000), and UCU (120,000) - UCU and NASUWT have political funds, and NUT and PCS have voted to set up political funds. In none, not even the leftish PCS, is affiliating to the Labour Party, or any proposal to make the union party-politically active, even a
RMT was disaffiliated by the Labour Party on the pretext that its Scottish region had affiliated also to the Scottish Socialist Party. The FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party after its pay dispute in 2002-3. Both FBU and RMT retain links with the Labour left by their affiliation to the Labour Representation Committee.
Between about 2001 and 2003 there was a flurry of speculation on the left that a number of unions might disaffiliate from Labour and maybe even create a left-wing alternative. In fact RMT and FBU have done nothing coherent politically since their disaffiliation.
A number of unions supported Ken Livingstone for London mayor against the official Labour candidate in 2000 without any reprisals from the Labour Party, and a good number of local union branches have supported independent working-class socialist election candidates against New Labour without reprisals.
But disaffiliation is not a live issue in the big unions. The idea has been debated repeatedly in CWU, and clearly defeated in favour of a policy of using the union's clout as best as possible within the Labour structures. The challenge is to get that policy carried out!
Many unions are not affiliated to Labour, and some have no political fund. What should the left say in those unions? Pat Murphy of the National Union of Teachers Executive outlines the situation in the NUT.
The NUT does not have a political fund despite a decision by its Annual Conference to consult members on setting up such a fund just before the last general election. The union leadership claims that the absence of a fund does not prevent the union from campaigning on political issues such a education funding and the defence of comprehensive state education using the campaigns budget.
It isn't that the union has no involvement in politics at a national level. Instead we rely on informal contacts and some formal parliamentary lobbying by national officials and officers which is less like collective political representation and more like a form of special pleading.
The lack of a political fund does, however, mean that the NUT is completely outside the debate about political representation for the trade union and labour movement. Affiliation to a party is a very long way off the agenda and has simply not been raised as an issue within the union at a national level.
There is, however, plenty of interest in branches (divisions and associations) in the need to develop a political voice which will oppose testing and league tables, defend local authority-provided comprehensive schools and fund schools adequately and fairly. There is support for the Labour Representation Committee which goes beyond the normal confines of the left in the union and this was clear from some of the attendance at the LRC conference in July 2006. There is also evidence of support for John McDonnell's campaign for the Labour leadership both within the main left organisations (Socialist Teachers' Alliance and Campaign for a Democratic Fighting Union) and beyond them. There is, though, no channel to promote this officially at any level.