Our big unions – the likes of Unite and Unison – get themselves in a mess when it comes to attitudes to a Labour government.
We’ve got a Government that drives through some desperately reactionary policies – war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scapegoating of asylum seekers, a celebration of anti-union laws, a systematic assault on civil liberties and so on. And, of course, the steady dismantling of our NHS, together with the rest of the public sector. In spite of this, we go on handing over the cheques – around £1/2 million a quarter from the Amicus section of Unite, from memory.
My own view is that this is nonsense. Why hand over so much members’ money when we get so little in return? I support the democratisation of the political fund – of course Unite and other unions have to be able to take part in political campaigning, but we should spend our money in the interests of our members, rather than just handing it over to Labour.
There can very direct consequences for our members in tying ourselves so closely to a Labour Government – a drift towards downgrading the interests of our members so as not to embarrass Labour. If we had a Tory government, I strongly suspect we would have had a more robust response from the union movement than we’ve actually seen.
I’m pleased that Unite’s Health Sector is acknowledging some of the contradictions, and recognising the need to fight for our members. We had an excellent discussion at the Health Sector National Committee last week on the threats to the NHS, and how we need to defend the NHS and our members more vigorously. We talked about some of the ideas that recent reps meetings in London have raised – a more strategic approach to resisting the attacks we face, organising meetings for the groups of members who are under attack to share ideas on how to resist, and higher profile campaigning against cuts, redundancies and privatisation. We talked about the scope for campaigning around the 60th anniversary of the NHS – celebrating the values of the NHS, but highlighting the speed and scale of the erosion of a public sector service with public sector values and public accountability. The Union is already working on two new publications – on Foundation Trusts, and on ‘Where the power lies’ – exploring how public control of the NHS is being handed over to big business. The meeting heard reports of industrial action taken by members to defend pay and conditions.
The discussion was an interesting one. One long-standing Labour Party member said he had little enthusiasm for campaigning for Labour – he described the difficulty of knocking on doors to say, ‘Vote Labour – they’re the best of a bad bunch’. Another Committee member, a Labour Councillor, outlined that he will not be standing again – he hates what the Labour Government is doing to the NHS, and feels excluded from political decision making.
Labour needs to take care – as do TU General Secretaries. Our unions have sometimes been slow to challenge Government policy – but, at the end of the day, if unions won’t fight for members, they lose all credibility – and members will vote with their feet. And when loyal and long-standing Labour Party members are raising such strong disagreements, it’s an indication of just how rotten and reactionary this Government’s policies have now become. The contradictions for our unions get sharper – and aren’t going to go away.