Friday, 18 January 2008

Tories Target Trade Union Political Funds

The Centre for Policy Studies was founded in 1974 by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Since then it has become an ideas factory for neo-liberal policy formation and trades in the rhetoric of free markets, deregulation, slashing red tape, competitiveness, flexibility ... all those New Right buzzwords we've come to learn and loathe over the last 30 years. Strange how no one talks about trickle down any more.

Their latest pamphlet on political funding, Labour and the Trade Unions: An Analysis of a Symbiotic Relationship is straight out of the CPS mould. The first point of its summary reads
The Labour Government has, since 1997, made much of its "business friendly" credentials. However, study of its employment legislation and its relaxation of Trade Union regulation shows that, in reality, employers have been faced with significant extra burdens and that the rights enjoyed by Trade Unions have been greatly strengthened.
You might be tempted to ask "what planet are they on?" Even the dogs in the street know New Labour is the most right-wing anti-working class Labour government in British history. Only people with a visceral hatred for the labour movement, combined with a relationship to the class struggle mediated by The Telegraph and working lunches with corporate "risk-takers" could believe otherwise. The credited authors of this piece are Alan Duncan, Tory shadow for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and Jonathan Djongoly, his deputy. But all of us who care about the labour movement would do well to pay attention to their recommendations. If the Tories get back in after the next election (did they ever leave?), these suggestions could well form the basis of their political funding/anti-trades union legislation.

It is worth quoting Duncan and Djongoly's most important recommendations at length. These belong to a set of positions specifically addressing union political funds and political donations:
* Unions' members should vote annually on maintaining a political fund.
* A Union's members should be required to vote on the level of the political levy annually.
* The political fund opt-out right should be clearly stated on Trade Union membership application forms or a specific opt-in introduced.
* The opt-out right should be offered annually to each union member.
* Union members who do wish to contribute to the political fund should be able to decide either directly as individuals or collectively via a members' vote to which party/parties/causes their funds should be put.
* The accounting reporting requirements of Unions should be reviewed - particularly with a view towards improving transparency.
All this, the authors claim, means unions would be "subject to similar levels of transparency and democracy as apply to companies and individuals". Physicians, heal thyselves! Anyone remember the £550,000 allegedly given to the Tories on the quiet by Wafic Said, the billionaire intermediary who greased the wheels of the infamous British Aerospace fighter deal with the Saudi despots? Yes, everything was so very above board then.

Let there be no doubt about this. There is nothing wrong with demanding financial transparency in labour movement organisations. Trade union members have every right to know where our money is going, be it to the political party that time and again kicks our class in the teeth, or into cushions padding the comfy chairs of many a general secretary. Neither is there anything wrong with democratising political funds. But these Tory proposals have nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with reinforcing the power of capital over labour. If implemented, there are likely to be two sets of consequences:

1) Trade union funding to Labour will be severely curtailed. According to Electoral Commission figures cited in the document, £55.5 million flowed from the unions into the party's coffers in the 2001-2006 period, 65.1% of all monies received. The Tories assume if their proposals become law, the majority will either opt out of paying a political levy and/or some unions could drop their affiliation. Either way, less trade union money will be heading in Labour's direction and make it more dependent on business backers than ever before. This gives the Tories more of an advantage when it comes to campaigning - their organic links to British capital ensures their ability to massively outspend Labour. Given the character of the Labour party at present, some might justifiably say "so what?" It isn't as if New Labour hasn't spent the last 11 years grovelling before business interests. But the danger this could pose to Labour party funding will also apply to any future new workers' party with trade union backing. Effectively, it seeks to lock working class people out of political participation.

2) The proposed measures on annual political levy level votes, maintenance of the fund, destination of the levies, and the annual opt-out reminder comes on top of the continued becalming affects of existing anti-trade union legislation. As bureaucracies have mushroomed to ensure compliance with a superabundance of Byzantine regulations and technicalities, resources will have to be found to run permanent departments attending to the Tories' rules. More bureaucracy = more conservatising pressures on the trade unions and less money for front line activities.

What can be done? A strategy solely concerned with keeping the Tories out is a non-starter. At the moment, choosing between Labour and Conservative governments is the difference between neo-liberalism with a smile and a smirk, and a neo-liberalism openly contemptuous of working class people. Labour's opposition to meddling with the union link will last as long as it takes to sort out party funding from the public purse. They too seek to exclude ordinary people from mainstream politics. "Nationalising" parties make them less amenable to the pressures of membership, of the activists who theoretically act as a bridge between the general public and the full time apparatus and leadership of a party. The Tory proposals amount to the same thing: "privatising" parties by making them more dependent on the grace of wealthy individuals and business entities will do the job just as well.

The best way, the only real way we can head off attacks of this character is for the left to seriously agitate for and win over as many trade unionists as possible to a programme of democratising our movement . This goes hand in hand with making it more relevant, meaningful, and responsive to the needs of our class. We have to wield the weapon of democracy, otherwise our enemies will use its name against us.


Anonymous said...

excellant points phil. how ironic would it be if it was a tory initiative that helped clear the path for the leftward shift of the trade union tops and the formation of a new workers party. If political funds are abandened, as various tory ministers have hinted at, then how can general secretaries legitmise political support for a party of big business.

not that im wishing for a tory government of course.

steven rix said...

Lobbyism is corruption, these are some ideas of the american left.

Talking about gangs in your early posts Phil BC, I found a copy of "a very Brithish gangsters" and I'm going to view it tonite hopefully.

Cheers! (it's Friday *hic*)

Anonymous said...

"the danger this could pose to Labour party funding will also apply to any future new workers' party with trade union backing"

sorry i must have missed this, when i first commented(and as its 4.26 in the morning, im wary of not reading the post inncorrectly) but i can't see how these moves would lock workers of of political participation. obviously it could mean that a new workers party may not gather the sort of sums together as the labour party did early on, but ultimatley i see the effects on a new workers party a little differently. Surely if members can vote on where their levy goes, then it would help push forward the processes that would lead to the unions standing candidates and supporting left parties and campaigns. it also means that a new workers party could not simply win the support of union leaderships in order to gather funds - instead new parties would be reliant on the support of the rank and file.(i assume we agree this is what we want)

i agree the politics behind these proposals are those of big business. but their effects may be quite different to intended. ultimatley if rank and file members are in democratic control of their levy then it could serve as a barrier on right-wing leaders, as well as giving the left the opportunity to win financial support for campaigns and initiatives, directly from the organised working class.

i think as socialists we should be wary and argue against any interference of the unions by tories, just as we would blairite labour governments but that doesnt mean these proposals are necessarily without positive opportunities for the left.

unless of course ive misunderstood something you said?

Anok said...

Interesting topic Phil, I'm curious to see how all of this compares to US economic debauchery.

I will admit, I am a little lost, and will need to do some investigating with regards to the economic system, and all of the groups associated with it that you mention in your post. I just don't know "the lingo" if you will.

On the flipside, I caught a rather strange debate about trickle down economies last night, during something I was watching. (Brain fart - I can't remember, I think it was on PBS, Jim Lehrer?).

They were debating about whether our economy was a trickle down, or trickle up....practically speaking that is.

ian said...

"But the danger this could pose to Labour party funding will also apply to any future new workers' party with trade union backing. Effectively, it seeks to lock working class people out of political participation."

Exactly my thoughts and one that I have posed to comrades outside the LP on many occasions.
I tend to sympathise with the idea of democratising political funds in the TUs and that should start with cutting the money given to the LP as a protest for their attacks on public sector workers.
We have to be careful though because as you point out, the current climate is very anti labour amongst trade unionists. We need to be careful that members do not opt out of the political levy altogether as is being experienced in the CWU at the moment.


Phil said...

Sorry, I meant to reply to this sooner. My main fear isn't suspension of trade union funding for the Labour party. Despite the scare mongering by the CPS, trade unions have had very little for their money. As we have seen with the RMT, they continue to sponsor Labour MPs who actually act in the interests of trade unions. All this without being affiliated. As I also noted, the trade union money is a stop gap. New Labour want state funding to insulate parties from the pressures of its electoral base. I don't see how unions should be funding a party with such anti-democratic intent. I suspect Ian you'll disagree. But seriously, what do trade unions get for their money?

The problem I have is by putting such stringent requirements on political funds, it will add either another conservatising pressure, or because of the prohibitive costs of meeting the legislative prescriptions, some unions will dispense with political funds altogether.

Would write more but short of time!

marshajane said...

Hi Phil thanks for the comment great minds think alike eh :)

"But the danger this could pose to Labour party funding will also apply to any future new workers' party with trade union backing. Effectively, it seeks to lock working class people out of political participation."
I agree completly - we do have to democratise the political funds especially in unison where lay activists have no control over the money and more often than not its used to fund right wing candidates to further some national officers chances of a safe seat (or peerage!) later in life.

Phil said...

Of course Marshajane ... you are my twin after all ;)

marshajane said...

Indeed! I'd forgotten that :)