On the surface, the Telegraph reports of £18 million in state funds going to Unite, and its predecessors Amicus and TGWU, from the Labour government seem pretty damning. I was outraged; unions are not there to be funded by the State, and taking such funding compromises unions. Their bureaucracies could thence rely on State aid as insulation from having to fight for and fight to keep members’ dues.
There is also the question as to whether or not the unions like Unite have been feeding this money back into the Labour Party. If that could be proved to be the case, then it’s all the more reason to get rid of the current morons at the top of the Labour Party; first the scandal of private donations from millionaires, and cash for peerages, now this.
Lest people forget, if any of this were true, the government was not just using State money to stay in government through a funded political machine. They were using it to retain control of the Labour Party, which is a much greater offence, so far as I and many other socialists would be concerned.
Reality is not so simple, however. There are several funds which have channelled money to the unions, (e.g. Partnership at Work, the Union Modernisation Fund and the Union Learning Fund) and none of them are to do with political donations. The amount gathered from each member for a political fund must be stipulated, only money from the political fund may be used for political activities and money from other accounts may not be used.
That is the law. No one has said that the law has been broken, and the Guardian’s disingenuous chart (shown right, courtesy of Iain Dale) is simply a case of attempting to secure a guilty verdict by very dodgy inferences. All the accusations of money laundering – of this money passing through Unite or the other unions en route to Labour – are silly.
A fair contention, however, is that there is a moral case to answer. A Labour government is channelling money directly to the unions – for admittedly benevolent, non-political purposes. But presumably – as well as reaching difficult to organise workers, and coaching people to get qualifications and training – this bolsters the prestige and attraction of the trades unions. Union Learning Fund projects, for example, seem open only to union members.
Higher union membership means more money for the Labour Party. Or does it?
Actually I don’t think this moral case holds up. Since every member of a union chooses whether or not to pay into the political fund, people who don’t want to support Labour can benefit from these programmes. There’s also the numerous cases of unions which have political funds that don’t contribute to Labour – such as the National Union of Teachers, the RMT, University and Colleges Union or the Fire Brigades Union.
The actual programmes involved, through which all this money is channelled, break down the moral case further still.
On a political level, programmes like Partnership at Work were not designed as vehicles for left-wing policy – they were the opposite. Their whole purpose was to suppress open conflict in the workplace. It’s my view that this type of thing directly led to a harmful increase in the pressure put on staff, in an environment free of the danger of industrial unrest.
On a practical level, programmes like Dignity at Work had the support of employers, employees, unions and the State – and these channelled large sums to educate on and prevent workplace bullying and other issues which are not just Left issues, since bullying affects productivity. Similarly with the Union Learning and Union Modernisation Funds.
Far from being bungs to union allies, this money was to serve a purpose that was not so crassly ‘political’ as is being made out and which gave little succour to “the Left”, unless we’re to recycle and adjust Harold Wilson, “Socialism is what unions do”, regardless of what they actually do.
By all means, people should object to unions being used as the vehicle for such policies – and I haven’t made up my mind yet, though I’m leaning towards a separation of unions as agitational bodies of workers from educative and training bodies paid for by the State. They can object to the specific policies as being inefficient or poor uses of money. But they can’t reasonably object that this money is a bung to union allies of a Labour Party.
The last refuge for such an accusation is whether all the money allocated for these purposes was spent on what it was supposed to have been spent on. The suggestive comments in the media – and the near-hysterical comments in the Right-blogosphere – betray ignorance over just this. So audits should be done, and we should see how it was spent.
None of it will have found its way into the political funds; I take that as a given. If it has, an offence has been committed and the guilty individuals responsible should be punished – but I doubt union officials are so stupid.
It is more believable that money left over may have been spent on more general concerns or union administration not necessarily relating to the projects mandated by the specific aims of these funds. To allay concerns, turn over the books. Open government is our friend. What is not acceptable is the high pitched screeching before any facts are known.
Mark Pritchard spoke out in Parliament on Tuesday to attack the Unite union:
“Does the Minister believe that the union leaders behind the BA strike should set an example and forgo some of their £150,000-a-year pay packets? Is not that another example of the arch hypocrisy at the very top of the Unite union?”
Most of the Labourites reading this just mentally yawned. Union leaders are not “behind” the BA strike; thanks to Tory legislation we now have not one but two polls reinforcing the extent to which BASSA members support a strike. Both established an easy majority with room to spare.
There’s also the fairly straightforward issue of Unite leaders criticising BA management’s salaries and bonuses – which have been paid despite the company facing significant losses of hundreds of millions of pounds. Unions aren’t seeking to pare down the wages of their employees to cover a hole in finances caused by management.
Certainly there’s a point to be made that Union leaders are too insulated from their members – I am a firm supporter of the idea of an “average skilled workers’ wage” for MPs and leaders of the labour movement. This is not the point Mark Pritchard, a Conservative MP is going for and…oh, wait? What’s this?
In recent years Mark Pritchard has regularly enjoyed flight upgrades on his frequent Washington trips, up from economy plus to business class. On one occasion BA’s generosity extended to include Mr Pritchard’s wife, who was also granted an upgrade to business class. BA business class flights to Washington cost over £2,000 single. Unite estimates then, that in the past few years Mr Pritchard has benefited to the tune of £15,000 in flights – more than a cabin crew member at Gatwick earns in a year.
Now the source for this a press release from Unite, so the amount is probably less than £15,000 – all I could find in the member’s register of interests was a 2008 flight upgrade worth about £2000, but the point is the same. Still, if one is prepared to level accusations of hypocrisy, especially when the Tories have been making a song and dance about Union money in the Labour Party, one really should make sure one is whiter than white.
Mark Pritchard isn’t.
I have been deeply troubled by the news as of late, much more so than usual. Industrial action at BA (which Dave has discussed here) and in the Civil Service, with promises of more to come, have got the Right and the media talking about the Unions again, in that wonderfully narrow-minded and ill-informed manner we’re all used to. I have come to the conclusion that my recently held suspicions of a resurgent Thatcherite tendency in the ranks of the Conservatives is becoming more and more obvious.
Even most on the left would accept that Margaret Thatcher was a woman of overwhelming conviction, and that she had a radical vision of how to change Britain. Though many on the left would not associate right-wing positions with radicalism, which is of course deeply flawed. The ideas of people like Thatcher, Milton Friedman and others on the fundamentalist right sought to change society, as they saw it, for the better, where we lefties tend to see them as changing it for the worse.
Whatever your views on the motivations of Thatcher and the consequences of her time in power, we can all agree that she made fairly significant alterations to our social and political landscape.
Her goal was to smash the post-war Keynesian consensus, and return to a more fundamentalist, laissez-faire, model of capitalism. She saw the changes of the post war period as limiting our opportunities in economic performance, and suffocating us with bloated and inefficient big government. As I like to often point out (with a somewhat smug tone), one of the major “successes” of this, as Thatcher herself put it, was New Labour. As she famously said, “we forced our opponents to change their minds”.
Despite the mountain of rubble under which the Tories buried themselves by 1997, Lady Thatcher could rest assure that certain elements of her cause would be safe in the hands of Blair and Brown.
Crucially, they supported her liberalisation of the financial markets. Despite manifesto promises, they supported continued marketisation of Public Services and never put an end to the Privatisation of essential services and national infrastructure.
They bought little or no reform to Local Government, essentially leaving Councils exactly as Thatcher had wanted them, spending agents of the Treasury. And virtually nothing was done to rebuild the skilled base of our once great, and highly Unionised, productive industries.
Our industrial sectors that were the backbone of numerous working class communities were decimated by an economic model that accepted un-unionised global competition as an immutable fact. Thatcher and her successors favoured a predominantly service based economy, where todays youngsters are more likely to be found working in jobs with little potential for advancement and less training in transferrable skills.
I tend to run through this list in my head and wonder, how much exactly did New Labour concede to Mrs Thatcher? Of course massive changes have been made, not least of all to the funding of our Public Services and eradication of poverty, but I am focusing on the core objectives of Thatcherism, the ones that survived her, and more so on the one that slipped the net.
Despite the tremendous damage Mrs Thatcher inflicted upon the Trade Union movement, she never truly succeeded in crushing them as she so wished. More importantly in my opinion (and in the opinion of many Tories no doubt!), she never managed to break the link between the Unions and the Labour Party, a pet cause of many on the right since Labour’s inception.
The Tories know, as Keir Hardie et. al also understood, that the major strength of the Labour Party is its nominal position as representative of the millions of men and women who are expected to bear the cost of every capitalistic cock up without protest.
That’s what made the Labour Party so special, it was rooted in the organised sections of the class it sought to represent. It was what the ruling classes of Britain had feared since the English Revolution, the previously silent majority organising effectively enough to make their voices heard, and right the terrible wrongs that this country’s majority had endured for centuries.
Although many will argue that this principle has been shunned by the current Labour leadership, which has refused to enact a whole host of policies suggested by various Trade Unions, they are just as vital to the continued existence of the Party, as they were at the beginning of the 20th century.
Most of the Party’s money come from Trade Union member’s, who donate money voluntarily to their respective Affiliate Political Funds. Also, large swathes of our activists come from the Unions, notably USDAW and Unite, who both play a massive role in Labour general election campaigns, with Unite currently running a national phone bank campaign, contacting tens of thousands of voters around the country.
The recent industrial disputes yesterday prompted Conservative Chairman Eric Pickle’s to bring this all up, he whipped himself into the usual kind of hysteria that Tories seem to get themselves into when Trade Unionists try to stand up for their members – which is, ironically, what Thatcher sought to portray as her aim, when it came to supposedly “undemocratic” union bosses and practices.
Pickles demanded that The Labour Party immediately stop taking funds from the Unite Union.
I have become bored of trying to explain the relationship between the affiliated Unions and the Labour Party to excited Tories who have very little understanding of our internal workings. I don’t want to make the whole “The Unions are a Part of the Labour Party” argument again, I outlined it here and George Eaton also wrote a cracking article in the New Statesman, that sums it up pretty well. But its pretty clear that the Tories are now trying to turn the Ashcroft scandal round on us and at the same time revive their favoured boogeyman.
George Osborne also had some words for us yesterday on the matter,
“Gordon Brown cannot have it both ways. He can’t condemn the strike whilst at the same time taking money from the strikers’ union and while at the same time allowing Charlie Whelan, the political director of that union, to have open access to 10 Downing Street.
“In the end it’s a question of leadership for Gordon Brown. He has to cut off the links with the Unite union which is a party within a party now for the Labour Party.”
It is clear from such comments that they are eager to get back to Thatcher’s unfinished business, and break the link between the Party and the Trade Unions for good.
David Cameron has been pretty open about his plans to reform the Union link, and Conservative sources have assured us that this is intended to be a first term priority if Cameron wins the election. If they succeed, they will pretty much destroy the last remnants of the Party’s links to the organised Labour movement, and certainly ensure it will no longer have any hope of serving its original purpose.
This shouldnt be of concern just to Labour Party members, but to all Trade Unionists, whatever their affiliations. This is an attack not on the Labour Party, but on the right of organised Labour to secure formalised political representation for our movement, and is an attempt to finish the work of their revered handbag brandishing leader. We should work to ensure they don’t get away with it.
When the time comes, the words “Taff Vale” will be on more lips than mine.