by Jack Staunton
Thousands of members of the London region of the Communications Workers’ Union are to vote in an ‘indicative ballot’ over affiliation to the Labour Party. The vote comes not only during a round of post strikes as the government makes sharp cuts in Royal Mail, but also at a time when Gordon Brown’s party are increasingly dependent on union funding.
The CWU has furthermore tabled a motion on political representation at this week’s Trades Union Congress in Liverpool; however, such resolutions, and indeed the current ‘indicative ballot’ are non-binding and most of the union leadership have only demanded a few crumbs from Labour in exchange for their millions of pounds of backing. Previous threats against the Labour leadership have rarely been backed up.
Today Brown will address the TUC and make the case for limited cuts, just days after he and 15 union leaders met at his Chequers country residence for a chicken balti and a chat about how the unions can help him out in his current squeeze and what he can give in return. There has been much bluster before even from the right-wing of Unite and Unison of how they would fight to the last to defend their rights at Labour conference, or how they would only fund certain approved candidates: but the rhetoric has never been followed by action, with promises from Blair and Brown of ‘reviews’ and ‘policy debate’ in the future sufficient to quell their fears.
Despite years of sustained attacks on Royal Mail’s workforce and the closure of Post Offices, sparking post strikes every one of which Labour has opposed, the CWU has funded the party to the tune of £6 million since 2001, with more than £400,000 of that in 2009 alone.
This is compensated in part in the leadership’s eyes with direct government backing for union training programmes, staffing Whitehall with union officials and a number of the latter being parachuted into safe seats for the 2010 election. Those on the left who think the selection of union-sponsored candidates displays the possibility of a fight within the Labour Party are quite wrong: these decisions are taken solely at the level of the union leadership, not by ordinary members, and even then are subject to veto by Labour’s NEC.
No doubt CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, opposed to disaffiliation, will make great play of this summer’s postponement (not abandonment) of plans to privatise Royal Mail as evidence that affiliation works. Yet the cuts agenda is far from over; it is certainly going to be accelerated. Union members will know not only that the carve-up of the postal service continues, but that the government is now warming to the Tory challenge by promising cuts in the public sector and welfare. It is widely accepted in the media that massive cuts are an urgent necessity to make up for national debt, and the question asked by pollsters is not ‘should the state help out the mass of people now out of work due to the recession’, but rather ‘who do you trust to implement cuts?’ or ‘what should be cut first and by the greatest degree?’
On the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year, which sparked the financial deluge and the discrediting of the City of London, the Labour Party ‘left turn’ has quickly been exposed as hollow. Yet we face the grim prospect, when Labour is opposition, that today’s ministers will meekly posture against Tory cuts and the likes of Billy Hayes will argue that shows the need to get them back into power. The circular argument is that when Labour are in power we urgently have to batten down the hatches to keep out the Tories, and when Labour are in opposition the most important thing is to get them back in power – ignoring, of course, what the Labour Party itself does in government. The Conservatives’ ideological mission is such that their cuts will be sharper than Brown’s are today; but unions should surely work to resist the cuts with their own muscle rather than passively tail the plans of least-worst government on offer.
CWU members should not just be asked for their opinion on whether CWU should disaffiliate: they should have the right to decide that the union should shut off the taps now. The successful motion at last year’s CWU conference to demand that the current ballot should take place was however a move forward, and the maximum possible vote against continued affiliation will put the union in a far better political and financial position to resist cuts both under Labour and under the incoming Tory administration.