A letter from Pete Allen
I have followed with interest your debate about trade union political funds/disaffiliation. I believe our central aim is to encourage working people to take an active interest in political debate, confident that if they do so we will be able to attract significant numbers of them to radical/revolutionary socialism. We are anxious to empower them to be involved in decisions that affect them and to encourage them to believe that their actions can make a difference.
We want the debate about the future of the trade union political funds to spread beyond the handfuls of activists and bureaucrats to whom it is currently confined, to the millions of political levy paying trade unionists who we wish to be our audience.
We should be arguing that all trade unions should hold membership ballots, as soon as possible, to determine whether the individual unions should remain (or even become) affiliated to the Labour Party.
In such ballots I would advocate voting in favour of disaffiliation, both because of the appalling policies of New Labour in government and also (and even more importantly) because of the structural changes in the nature of the relationship as outlined by John and Sean (Solidarity 3/29).
In the lead up to these ballots it is conceivable that the leadership of New Labour would be sufficiently perturbed by the prospect of large-scale disaffiliations that they altered policies in a left-wing direction and agreed to the re-establishment of mechanisms of accountability to the wider labour movement (re-introducing policy debates at conference etc). It is conceivable that the extent of these changes would be sufficient to warrant an alteration in my position so that I advocated continued affiliation. The important thing is to promote a debate about the nature of the link between unions and the New Labour Government and a debate about socialism etc.
Whilst the debate about trade union affiliation/sponsorship of the Labour Party and possible alternatives is an important one, of even more importance in my opinion is the issue of trade union democracy and activity as a whole.
For as long as active participation in trade union debates remains something which a tiny minority of trade unionists engage in, then the possibility of creating a workers movement capable of playing a crucial role in a wider socialist movement is non existent.
In my opinion raising the level of active participation, hopefully on the basis of a commitment to socialism, is best achieved at the lowest level of the trade union movement i.e. in individual workplaces and union branches. It is only when individual trade unionists acquire a sense of the possibility of having some influence over the way their union branch and representatives behave, in relations with their employer, that they might come to see the possibility of having a real influence over their national leaders and their political representatives.
At present the overwhelming majority of trade unionists feel little connection whatever with national debates in their union, which they conceive of as taking place elsewhere and often the preserve of full time officials.
How is this to change ? Obviously there are no easy answers. However I think that we should be raising a concrete demand for the right of all trade unionists to have paid time to participate in trade union debates. Even one hour a week of such time would transform the relationship between members and their leaders and would open up the possibility of real and genuine trade union democracy being achieved.
Whilst we could not expect the demand to be granted by New Labour I think it is a demand that would be immediately and increasingly popular among ordinary trade unionists, our audience. Many of them would also regard it as being eminently reasonable, given their knowledge of the many hours that their bosses get paid to plan and execute management policies and strategies.
A popular demand then and an essential one in the transformation of the trade union movement
Pete Allen, Glossop