New Labour aims to sever its roots?

Just as the election of the Blair Government in May 1997 looked to promise the return to influence of trade unions within the UK Government, the Labour Party is proposing changes which some argue will dilute the role of unions in the decision-making process over party policy. The subject came to a head in September 1997 at the TUC's annual conference.

Historically, the Labour Party originated from the trade unions as their political arm, to represent the views of the unions within Parliament. However, some commentators believe that the Labour Party now seems keen to rid itself of the influence of its originators. At the September 1997 Trades Union Congress (TUC) annual conference, Prime Minister Tony Blair made it clear that Labour's ties with the unions had to be modernised. This has caused much controversy among activists and trade unions alike, at a time when some unions are beginning to question whether they should be "wasting" funds on a political party which might not ultimately meet their aspirations. Underpinning this whole debate are Labour's proposals on "Labour into Power".

Labour into Power

The reform programme, "Labour into Power", includes proposals drawn up by Labour's ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) to make changes to the party's annual conference, the NEC, and the policy-making process. The proposals are designed to prevent the conference debating the same policies year after year, so that it can concentrate on certain parts of its two-year rolling programme. A consultative paper also proposes that the proportion of trade union representatives on the NEC should be reduced. A particular sticking-point for the unions is the proposal to scrap the separate women's section on the NEC, which is dominated by the unions, and replace it with members drawn from central government and members of the European Parliament. The new proposal is that the TUC will keep its 12 seats on the 29-strong NEC, but that there will be three Members of Parliament (MP s) appointed by the Prime Minister's office, with another three elected by Labour MPs, while local government, with two seats, will be represented for the first time.

Opponents fear that the reforms would water down the role of the unions and of ordinary party members, stifle democracy and sideline the left. The unions are also concerned that the party leader might renege on a promise made in September 1996 that the unions' "block vote" at conferences would not be further reduced. At present, the unions have 50% of the vote.

Consequences

According to a report in The Times, a rebellion by party activists persuaded the Prime Minister to tone down the reforms contained in the document, and to accede to demands that they should continue to be able to vote on issues they choose as being of concern to them at the annual conference, rather than dealing only with an agenda set by the leadership. Most of the 102 motions submitted to the Labour Party conference by party members on the issue raised objections to the document. In the wake of such opposition, the leadership is clearly dependent on trade union support to get the package through and, as such, efforts are being made to reassure union leaders that their influence will not diminish as a result of the changes.

Mr Blair is expected to confirm to unions that they are to retain their right to vote on central policy issues every year and, in another compromise, he will tell the NEC that activists will have more power to amend policy statements drawn up by the leadership. Normally they are voted on as an whole on a "take it or leave it" basis, but they will now be able to vote on alternatives when presented by the 175-strong "national policy forum", whose powers are to be strengthened by the reforms.(The Times, 28 July 1997)

Trade union views

The table below gives the views of a range of trade unions on the proposed Labour Party reforms.

Trade union View
Communication Workers Union (CWU) According to Derek Hodgson, acting joint general secretary, Labour should count itself fortunate that unions are so closely linked to it. He told MPs: "There are those in the parliamentary party who suggest the job of the unions is to offer blind support for any policy they dream up. This is arrogant nonsense." Mr Hodgson said his union was committed to retaining the right of unions to present policy motions and amendments to the party conference. CWU has already voted against the reforms.
Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) At the forefront of opposition to the reform package, which it fears is the first step towards breaking the historic link with the unions altogether. Ken Jackson, general secretary, said that the unions would resist any attempts to further erode their influence.
Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen (ASLEF) Lew Adams, general secretary, said that there was a strong feeling within the unions that they had done a great deal to assist Labour's election victory. The union is demanding that the decision be shelved until next year to give more time for the party to debate the implications. Also gave warning that the proposed changes could force affiliated unions to pull out of the party.
UNISON (health and public sector union) Agreed to support the overhaul of Labour's policy-making process after receiving assurances that unions will retain their traditional right to table critical motions to the party conference.
Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) Agreed to support the overhaul of Labour's policy-making process after receiving assurances that unions will retain their traditional right to table critical motions to the party conference.
GMB (general workers' union) Agreed to support the overhaul of Labour's policy-making process after receiving assurances that unions will retain their traditional right to table critical motions to the party conference.

The unions' "bottom line" is that the conference must remain the sovereign body of the Labour Party and the unions must retain control of half the votes at the conference. John Edmunds, general secretary of the GMB, said that there were weaknesses in the proposals for reform but "we are not going to throw it out root and branch."

Commentary

There are those who say the time is right for both the trade unions and the Labour Party to break their long-standing bonds as they attempt to modernise their organisations. It is clear that the Prime Minister wishes to dismantle much of the unions' hold over the party. The unions financed only 25% of Labour's election campaign in 1997, compared with 90% in 1992, and for the first time in history union donations in 1996 accounted for less than half of Labour's total income. However, despite this the leadership of the party is still to some extent financially beholden to the unions. Labour is said to have overspent on its election campaign, and the first source it would normally turn to for funds is the unions. Equally, the links between the unions and the Labour Party are ideological and run deep. Individual activists are usually members of both and are unlikely to give up either without a fight. (MW Gilman, IRRU).

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