A Defining Moment For Trade Unionism

By Professor Keith Ewing, Vice President of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

Trade union leaders are now under great pressure.  They and they alone have the opportunity to stop Miliband’s breath-taking changes from happening, and the opportunity to defend the principle of collective affiliation. 

It is true that Miliband’s proposals will not need legislation in order to be implemented.  But they will require a change to the Labour Party’s rules, UNLESS every union agrees voluntarily to accept any new arrangements about to be proposed by Lord Collins of Highbury.

Without an agreement, each union will be free to continue to affiliate to the Party on its own terms, as at present.   But because not every union leader will be able or will want to deliver an agreement of this kind, rule change at some stage is inevitable.

So far as the unions themselves are concerned, Miliband’s proposals as a minimum will require every union to adopt the UNISON model – an Affiliated Political Fund (APF) and a General Political Fund (GPF) – a model born of an amalgamation of two political cultures in one organization.

Good news for UNISON, who will come through this trauma largely unscathed.   But not such good news for all the other unions, who will be required to change their rules if they are to retain the right to affiliate to the Labour Party.

No doubt Lord Collins will be able to help here, by drafting model rules which may have to be adopted by all affiliates, these likely to require all affiliated unions to establish two political funds, one for those members who choose to affiliate to Labour, and one for those who do not.

These rules will then have to be approved by the regular rules revision procedures of each of the affiliated trade unions individually.   It is presumably being taken for granted that trade unionists can be taken for granted to go along with this, and nod it through.

With two funds, trade unions will be able to use (i) the affiliated fund to pay affiliation fees to the Labour Party and (ii) the general political fund to pay for various campaigns, which include campaigns in support of Labour or Labour candidates at elections (as at present).

The latter funds (the general political funds) are likely to become very significant, if the UNISON Model is any guide, as many members will choose to support their union’s political activities without supporting the Labour party.

The problem, however, is that these anticipated general political funds are about to become redundant.  On 4 June 2013, Cameron announced proposals for new controls on trade union spending in elections, proposals which not enough people are taking seriously enough.

If these plans are implemented (and why would they not be?) any election expenditure by a trade union affiliated to the Labour party (including presumably from a union’s general political fund) will count as Labour Party expenditure.

Being treated as Labour Party expenditure, it will count towards the Party’s spending limit for the purposes of election law.   According to the BBC, the same will apply in relation to union expenditure in support of candidates at constituency level.

For anyone harbouring the delusion that the Miliband proposals will release money for election campaigning, forget it.   If Cameron’s plans are implemented, trade unions will only be able to spend money at election time with the consent of the Party or its candidates.

 There is no reason why the Party would authorise trade unions to speak on its behalf in this way.  And if the party’s fortunes revive with the anticipated influx of private donations as a result of the Miliband reforms, it would not be able legally to do so.

This is a defining moment for the political voice of trade unionism, which it is the misfortune of the current generation of general secretaries to have to defend.   Having been marginalised industrially, trade unions are in the process of being marginalized politically.

As matters stand, this will be seen as a great victory for Progress, with trade unions being trussed up like Christmas turkeys.

While all unions will not be equally affected by the changes required, all unions will be diminished if the collective trade union voice grows ever more faint.

This article appeared in Tribune July 12th.

This entry was posted in Campaign For Trade Union Freedom News, UK Employment Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Defining Moment For Trade Unionism

  1. Pingback: A defining moment for trade unionism | Left Futures

  2. Jon Rogers says:

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t really put the 4 June announcement together with this issue properly. Any idea when the Bill will be published?

    I’m not sure though that the UNISON system really delivers the death blow to collective affiliation which Ed Miliband appears to have in mind, as I try to explain here – http://www.redpepper.org.uk/ed-miliband-praises-unisons-labour-fund-opt-in-but-its-not-that-simple/

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