Sunday 21 April 2013

UNITE Political Fund ballot - vote YES despite the spin

Between 1 May and 22 May, UNITE members in the UK will be balloted again, this time over whether the union should keep its "political fund".

Details about the ballot and resources are here including this video campaigning for a YES vote:

The law says that to keep our political fund, UNITE must ballot all its members at least every ten years.  There are a lot of misconceptions about the political fund.  Some are being addressed by UNITE's campaign for a YES vote, but others are being fed.

In the UNITE Rulebook, Rules 23 & 24 deal with the Political Fund, while Rule 22 covers "Political Organisation - the Labour Party".  While the money in our political fund can be used for anything at all, only money from the political fund can be used for certain purposes, which are set out in Rule 23.1 (taken from the legislation).  Read them for yourself, but they basically boil down to supporting political parties or office holders, or persuading people to vote for or against candidates.

The UNITE guide to the ballot (which does contain some useful material) highlights a court case involving NALGO in 1987.  NALGO ran a "Make People Matter" publicity campaign for a year, attacking the Tory government and its policies on public services and focussing on Tory marginal constituencies.  The courts ruled that the main purpose of the campaign was to persuade people not to vote Conservative, and since NALGO had no political fund, that it could not continue or spend money on the campaign for the duration of the election.

I don't think the facts support the UNITE guide's claim that since this case "if unions want to have any kind of political voice, to campaign for changes for working people or against government policies, we must ballot for a Political Fund every ten years".  Even the case cited only banned the NALGO campaign during the election itself.  It's only in recent years that PCS and NUT (which aren't affiliated to Labour) decided to set up political funds, yet most of their members work in the public sector and they have obviously been campaigning against government policies long before they established political funds.

Better arguments for a YES vote

It's a shame that UNITE is exaggerating the case so much in order to persuade members to vote YES.  Because there are much stronger arguments for having a political fund which go right to the heart of the matter.  Without a political fund, for example:

  1. We could not urge members or the public to vote against parties like the BNP which seek to divert people's anger about austerity onto scapegoats and which oppose everything UNITE stands for.
  2. We could not support those few MPs, councillors and candidates who do actually stand up for our members.
  3. We could not campaign against re-electing councillors or MPs who have led particular attacks on our members.
  4. We would risk getting bogged down in expensive and distracting legal cases whenever our campaigning criticised the policies of a particular party, especially around election times.
The reality is that for better or worse, governments affect the lives of UNITE members inside and outside the workplace.  Workers suffer inadequate legal protection on every issue from redundancy and TUPE to health & safety and blacklisting.  Unions are tied up with genuine "red tape" designed to use the threat of legal action to pressure union officials to obstruct members taking the action they decide is needed to defend their interests.  When big business and the rich spend eye-watering sums lobbying for their interests, working people cannot afford to restrict our participation in democracy to putting a cross in a box every few years.  As individuals we have no realistic prospect of influencing national events, but collectively we can.  A union that doesn't engage on political issues is defending its members with one hand tied behind its back.

Labour letting us down

The UNITE material for the election stresses that this vote isn't about affiliation to Labour.  This is correct.  Affiliation is in our UNITE Rulebook and changing that will require a rule change at a Rules Conference (the next one is June/July 2015).  But as Jerry Hicks highlighted in his recent election campaign, there's plenty that UNITE could do short of disaffiliation to avoid funding attacks on our own members.

The UNITE campaign for the political fund emphasises every aspect of the political fund except for the support for Labour.  But this is grossly misleading.  While there are many positive things UNITE could spend its political fund on, let's look at how it is actually spent.

The most recent accounts published on the Certification Officer web site are for 2011.  Page 10 covers the political fund, showing members contributions at £6,543,000.  The only expenditure was £3,407,000 in Labour Party affiliation fees and £667,000 on "Administration expenses in connection with political objects".  The balance in the political fund rose from £3,020,000 to £5,489,000.  Just over a million UNITE members contribute to the political fund, with just over half a million not contributing, including 169,292 who had completed an exemption notice.  There's an ever so slightly more detailed breakdown in note 2 on page 27, which does include the tantalising figure of £274,000 spent on "other grants and donations".  I did write to the UNITE Finance Director the previous year, asking about the other grants and donations - "Are these Labour Party related (e.g. CDP money) or contributions to non-party-related campaigns etc?", but never got a reply, despite chasing it up.

In reality, the vast majority of UNITE's spending from the political fund currently goes to support the Labour Party.  From the limited information available, I'm unable to determine any spending that actually went elsewhere.  Part of the problem is lack of transparency.  Despite requests, the finance reports which come to the Executive Council don't show the income to, or balance of, the political fund separately.  They do show projected political spending continuing at around £3.4m for the next few years, but don't yet show 2015, when we expect the General Election.  In my 10 years on the union executive, I don't recall any decision or report on expenditure from the political fund ever coming before the EC (or the Regional Committee when I was on that), other than for Constituency Development Plans (CDPs).

What we can see from the accounts on the Certificaion Officer web site is that (as usual between elections) the political fund balance is being built up rather than spent.  I have argued elsewhere that this was a major factor behind Len McCluskey's desire to bring forward the General Secretary election.  Getting the GS election out of the way now will allow him to pump millions from the political fund into Labour for the next General Election without his successor having to justify this during a General Secretary election at the same time.

The union's political committees are closely tied to Labour and closed to the vast majority of UNITE members.  A small percentage of UNITE members are in the Labour Party, but not even all of these are eligible to take part in UNITE's political conferences and committees - Rule 22.5 puts extra hurdles in the way.  Only Labour Party members who are delegated from other UNITE committees or who are delegates to Constituency Labour Parties can take part.  The effect is often to make these committees more like the voices of Labour in the union, rather than the voice of the union in the Labour Party.

The real UNITE policy

Behind all the spin about using the political fund for purposes other than Labour, the real agenda of UNITE's leadership was made clear at the last Policy Conference.  Composite 16, which included motion 81 from the IT & Comms National Industrial Sector Committee, which read:

This Policy Conference resolves that until the Labour Party adopts and actively pursues policies in support of trade union freedom, at least 10% of members' Political Fund contributions that would historically have been spent on the Labour Party shall be used by Unite to directly campaign for trade union freedoms instead of being used for contributions to, or support for, the Labour Party.

This Policy Conference resolves that until the leadership of the Labour Party publicly supports Unite members taking industrial action against austerity and in defence of public services, at least 10% of members' Political Fund contributions that would historically have been spent on the Labour Party shall be paid into Unite's National Dispute Fund.

To ensure transparency, this Policy Conference resolves that Unite's accounts will show contributions, expenditure, assets and liabilities relating to the Political Fund separately from its general funds.

Len and the majority of the EC argued vigorously against the motion, which was defeated at the Policy Conference (though it got a sizeable vote).  If the spin was true, and lots of our political fund was already being used for non-Labour purposes, the motion would have been passed "on the nod" rather than being one of the most contentious topics of the whole conference.

Not convinced to vote YES?

Maybe you're not convinced that unions should play any political role at all.  Or you disagree so strongly with how UNITE currently uses its political fund that you think it's actively doing harm.

But I'd still argue you should vote YES.

You have the ability to "opt out" of the political fund as an individual.  By voting NO you deny any choice to the rest of the members who do think the union needs a political voice and want to contribute despite the problems.

If you believe that a majority oppose the current political strategy of UNITE, we should be able to change it for the better - wouldn't that be a better approach?  Voting NO means siding with every Tory who wants to prevent working people having any voice in politics at all.

As you may have gathered, I don't agree with UNITE's current political strategy.  But I'm still contributing to the political fund.  I think there's a problem with "opting out" as an individual - it leads people to see the union's political work as no longer their responsibility or concern (even though it still affects us all), and give up on the idea of changing it for the better.  Changing it requires a collective democratic decision.  I'd much rather people contributed and fought to change UNITE policy rather than giving up and opting out.

What next?

The immediate task is to ensure a YES vote in the ballot, so that UNITE can continue to have a political voice.  But we should fight to change UNITE's political strategy too.

Jerry Hicks' magnificent 79,819 votes in the General Secretary election, despite Len McCluskey's "red-baiting" appeals for right wing support, reflected widespread anger at UNITE's ongoing support for Labour MPs even when they aren't representing us.

Those Labour councillors like Kevin Bennett and Councillors Against Cuts who vote against the cuts deserve everyone's support.  But Labour suspends or expels people who stand up for UNITE policies.

Jerry argued that we should support MPs and councillors when they support us, not keep pumping in money in the hope that they might do so in the future.  He also argued for renegotiating the Labour Party affiliation fee to reduce our massive contributions.  The affiliation fee is £3 a year per member, and UNITE's affiliation fees are over £3.4m a year, suggesting we are affiliating on a membership significantly greater than the 1m who contribute to the political levy.  If we can do this, why can't we affiliate on a lower membership figure as a start, instead of giving Labour this extra money?

We should also demand that UNITE spends its political fund more in line with the impression created by its YES campaign.  I live in the north-west, where we have Nick Griffin as a BNP MEP.  I'd love to see a large chunk of our political fund spent on the Griffin Must Go campaign.  The last EC meeting failed to endorse the motion from our Health National Industrial Sector Committee calling for a national demo in defence of the NHS - what better use of our political fund?  Campaigns like these could involve a far wider section of our membership than the narrow political committees which are closed even to most Labour Party members, and increase the engagement of UNITE members with politics.  Wouldn't that be a more promising political strategy than asking us all to join Labour, get selected as candidates, get elected and then get suspended or expelled if we actually stand up for UNITE policies?

If UNITE continues with its current strategy, things are likely to get worse.  We already have a big gap between words and deeds, with the link to Labour acting as a brake on our campaigning.  As the General Election approaches, the pressure will build on Len McCluskey and the rest tone down their rhetoric and keep a lid on action.  Yet Labour's leaders couldn't make clearer that even if they are elected, they won't reverse the damage being inflicted on working people by the Con-Dems.  The absence of a General Secretary election for another five years will make it harder for UNITE's leadership to stand up to these pressures.

If we want to protect our jobs, living standards, services and communities, we are going to have to put up a fight rather than waiting for Labour.

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