By Martin Thomas
Trade unions founded the Labour Party. It was common in the Labour Party's early years, and not unknown right up until the 1970s, for local Trades and Labour Councils to double-up as coordinating bodies for both the local Labour Party and the local trade unions.
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.
Quite often the parliamentary leaders defied party conference decisions voted through by the unions, and got away with it. Very often, the unions' preponderance in the party conference functioned more as a way by which conservative union leaders, basing themselves on their members' passivity, could protect the parliamentary leaders against challenges from the more active and radical workers in the local Labour Parties.
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, mostly since Tony Blair became Labour Party leader, have however made it much more difficult for rank-and-file trade unionists to have a say in and through the Labour Party.
The trade-union percentage of the Labour Party's income has gone down from 66% in 1992 to 33% in 2001. Blair and Brown would probably prefer a split if the unions launched a real fight. Short of that they will want to conciliate the union leaders a little in order to keep the 33% coming in. However, that sort of "union influence", exercised by haggling behind closed doors between union leaders and Labour Party leaders, is a different matter from the openly-debated union say, with rank-and-file input, which the old Labour Party channels made possible.
- The National Executive has been changed. The unions have only 12 out of 32 members. It has become much more like a consultative committee for the party leaders than a decision-making body. It publishes no minutes (though one Executive member, Ann Black, puts out detailed reports of its meetings as a personal venture) and does not take motions from unions or local Labour Parties.
Union representatives on the National Executive thus act under very little scrutiny from their union members, or even their union leaderships. All the unions were opposed to the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet when left-wingers on the National Executive put motions against the invasion, first time round (before the invasion) all the union reps voted for a counter-motion which was vaguely worded but would plainly function as licence for Blair to go along with Bush if he wanted to. The second time (after the invasion), they all agreed to "move to next business" without debate.
- 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. (The 12 union members of the National Executive are also on the Forum, but function as reps of the Executive, not of the unions).
The Forum shapes the agenda and the main documents for Labour Party conferences.
- 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. Even a relatively large union like the CWU, with 250,000 members, has no chance ever of getting a motion onto the Labour Party conference floor. Still less do the other 11 unions affiliated to the party.
The small number of motions from local Labour Parties is also an important factor in limiting effective union input.
Even before the restrictions, union leaders would usually (not always) avoid putting sharp, combative conference motions. But they did not control the agenda. Most of the agenda was set by local Labour Party motions. Once a motion was on the agenda, the union delegations were pretty much bound to vote the way their union conference policy indicated.
Thus local Labour Party motions could be "leverage" to bring left-wing policies passed by union conferences into the party conference, against the wishes of the general secretaries. No more. The Iraq war, for example, has never been debated by Labour Party conference, and trade union rights only once in recent years.
- Formally, the status of conference as "the ultimate authority in the party" (as the official Labour Party website still defines it) 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.
No minutes of conference are published. The 2005 Labour Party conference passed five motions directly opposing Government policy on key issues. Since newspaper and TV reporters were there, rank-and-file trade-unionists could get some idea of it. But find the actual text of the motions? Be able to refer to them to hold leaders to account? No way.
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, explosive crisis in the party.
But with all the changes in structure, now it does not mean that at all. 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.
In short, the thing is run by a cabal completely beyond the control of the average member. 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. (And many, maybe most, such delegates are full-time officials, or their cronies, appointed by full-time officials!)
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, but it is not at all clear that this will be sufficient to stop the new union having the same sort of insulation of its political voice from input from the rank and file that Amicus and Unison currently have.
In other words, half the union motions to Labour Party conference, and, maybe, from next year, three out of four of them, are controlled by committees which are sealed off from rank and file opinion short of an epochal upheaval in the unions. The fourth motion is the GMB's, and other features of the GMB's structure and low level of branch activity mean that this fourth motion is not much subject to rank and file influence either.
Unions where the membership has more political say, like the CWU, 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.
Many unions not affiliated to the Labour Party have political funds.
Before 1910 trade unions contributed to the Labour Party directly out of their general funds. A court judgement that year made it illegal, and since 1913 the unions have had to run separate "political funds" and allow members to opt out from contributing to those funds.
In 1927 the law was changed to require trade-unionists to opt in to contributing, and in 1946 it was changed back to opt-out. In 1984 the Tories brought in a new law requiring the unions to ballot their members every ten years about continuing their political funds.
The Tories must have hoped that this would lead to many political funds being shut down. In fact, every ballot has gone in favour of continuing the political funds, and several unions have started new political funds (partly because the 1984 Act also compelled unions to pay for all political campaigning, not just party-political stuff, from political funds).
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 starter.
RMT was disaffiliated by the Labour Party on the pretext that its Scottish region had affiliated also to the Scottish Socialist Party. RMT has now stopped that SSP affiliation, but there is neither will on the part of the RMT leadership to campaign for readmission to the Labour Party, nor any wish on the part of the Labour Party leadership to readmit.
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 very 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 (partly, but not only, because of the structures in Unison and Amicus which make it very difficult to raise any such questions). 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!