The giant Unite union announced on 5 March that it will reduce its numbers for affiliation to the Labour Party from one million to 500,000.
This move is part of a would-be cunning plan through which the big unions hope to neutralise the Collins proposals to rejig union affiliations to Labour.
At the Labour Party’s special conference on 1 March, union leaders made speeches denouncing the Collins proposals, but... calling for votes for the proposals. Evidently they reckoned that Collins’s final draft was “the best that could be achieved by negotiations”.
Collins changes little immediately. But it contains a timebomb. In 2019 unions’ affiliation numbers will be cut to equal the number of individuals who have ticked a box to say that they want some of their union dues to go to Labour.
Labour right-wingers say openly that they want to use that cut to reduce the unions’ vote in Labour structures and so further insulate the Labour leadership from working-class pressure.
The union leaders’ plan to reduce the affiliation numbers in advance, so that there is no sudden drop in 2019, and thus no sudden boost to the right-wingers.
The GMB, another big union, said in September 2013 it would cut its affiliation numbers more severely, from 420,000 to 50,000. The word from insiders is that it will revise that to a smaller reduction, more like Unite’s.
The third big union, Unison, has a sort of “box-ticking” system for political levy payments already.
The quirk is that new members are asked to tick one box or another to direct political levies either to a Labour-affiliated fund or to an unaffiliated one; quite a lot of recruits tick neither box, and a union office will allocate them one way or another randomly.
Unison has no plans to reduce its affiliation numbers. In fact, Unison leaders seem pleased about the fact that Unison will now be the biggest vote-wielder in the union bloc.
Socialists should respond with a forthright argument for the principle of the collective trade union voice in the Labour Party.