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Unions losing their 'voice' as Labour plans long goodbye

Frances O’Grady, the first woman general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, says “trade unions should have a strong political voice”. She’s so right because as things stand, their traditional “voice” in the shape of Labour is fading away.

The last week has been wracked with tensions and real as well as apparent turn-arounds in the trade unions’ crucial and historic relationship with the Labour Party. A schism emerged when one of the party’s biggest donors, the GMB, announced that it would cut its affiliation fees by 90% in response to planned rule changes by Labour.

These will terminate the present arrangement, whereby members of affiliated unions have part of their subs forwarded to the Labour Party. In future, individual members would have to “opt in” to membership to make a financial contribution. Labour will hold a special conference next year to make the changes.

Meanwhile, the party has had to back off from allegations of vote-rigging in a parliamentary candidate selection process in Falkirk, Scotland, in what appears to be a behind the scenes deal between the Unite union and Labour leaders. Yet the claims originally triggered Ed Miliband’s plans.

He remains unrepentant. Miliband’s unapologetically arrogant anti-union stance remains nothing other an abject sop to Tory-Liberal ideology and a continuation of Tony Blair’s policy of weakening, reducing and finally eliminating the links between Labour and the unions that founded the party at the start of the 20th century.
His hand is strengthened by a YouGov survey for the Labour UnCut blog.  According to the results, Miliband’s move to make trade unionists “opt-in” is backed by 60% of members of unions affiliated to Labour. The poll result is double-edged. It’s not surprising that trade unionists feel disgruntled and let down by Labour which has endorsed most ConDem policies and implemented the cuts at local council level.

New Labour governments drove on not only the marketisation/outsourcing of public services but the introduction of an authoritarian surveillance state. Their rejection of the socialist Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution heralded the transformation of Labour into an openly capitalist, neo-liberal party. Blairite “modernisation”, is being continued by Miliband.

The right to have political representation was achieved through historic political and legal struggles that began in the early 19th century. But now more than ever, workers and trade unionists are losing even the semblance of a political voice. Thus, Miliband and his co-thinkers are completing the reversal of the very process that gave rise to their party in the first place.

Motions put to this year’s TUC reveal the rising tide of discontent against the ConDems destruction of the welfare state and the growing sense that even if Labour were elected in 2015, nothing much would change because the party has accepted ConDem future budget cuts.

A crucial composite put by Unite and seconded by Unison, proposes that “Congress believes that the crisis facing people and their local services is so severe that we cannot wait for a general election in 2015, we must act now.” It calls on Congress to

instruct the General Council to organise in the course of 2014 a nationwide march against poverty, focusing on the bedroom tax, food banks and other effects of government policy designed to draw in working people and their communities in all parts of the country and to unite people around the trade union movement.

Council should, it says, “facilitate a co-ordinated programme of civil and industrial action involving trade unions and other campaigns”. The motion, which is certain to be passed, also calls on unions to “promote and support the day of action called by the People’s Assembly for 5 November 2013”.

This is not what Miliband, who speaks at the TUC tomorrow, particularly wants to hear. And he definitely won’t be backing strikes against the government.

Like the appointment of a woman to head the TUC after 145 years waiting, these actions are well overdue and we unreservedly support them. At last year’s Congress, there was plenty of rhetoric and even talk of a general strike. It came to nothing. This time round, we need deeds to match the words. Or the TUC’s own credibility will be worthless.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
9 September 2013

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