Some time ago, I discussed with an STUC General Council member how a number of my branch members had opted out of the political fund as a result of the independence referendum. In response, she cheerfully informed she had no such trouble as her union had set up their fund in such a way that their members signed up to Labour automatically while making it deliberately awkward to find out how to opt out. To me this seemed symbolic of how unions viewed the political fund more as a statement of political allegiance rather than a means of influencing the political process.
I believe the consequence of such an approach is a growing chasm between union leaders and their members within Scotland and a political fund that is wholly ineffectual in promoting a progressive union agenda.
Consider that despite vast sums being directed to Labour and 13 years of Labour Government the anti-union laws remained, privatisation spread and our manufacturing base continued to decline. All unions seemed to get for our money from ‘new’ Labour was pious lectures on the need to modernise.
Yet unions are not merely wage bargainers but a social movement dedicated to the creation of a fairer society. Therefore, I’m not making an argument against the concept of a political fund but rather a plea for one that works. Unions who use their political fund solely to support Labour have no recourse short of the nuclear option of completely removing funding. Inadvertently, they are creating a system where they have no leverage to influence the behaviour of the party or candidates they support. No union would enter into pay negotiations in such a weak position.
At the same time the current system does not encourage activism or participation from union members who are treated as little more than voting and cash fodder. At best every five years members vote on the continuation of the political levy. When we consider the technologies available how often are members consulted if they endorse the party and candidates their union support?
The current system creates the mirage of influence allowing union leaders to make critical speeches at Labour conference which may soothe a few consciences but in reality changes nothing. All the while decent union members who wish to become active in parties other than Labour are seen at best as eccentrics or at worst traitors to the one true faith.
However this is not a call simply for disaffiliation from Labour or the cry for a formation of a new workers party which in themselves would solve nothing. Rather it is a plea for reform to create a new system that increases trade union leverage in the political process.
For me the starting point is an acceptance that members’ politics are pluralistic and not confined to one party. At the same time unions have their own values and policies which the political fund has to respect. This would exclude supporting racist and anti-union parties such as UKIP and Conservatives but could create some healthy competition among others.
The first model would be that we support candidates and not parties depending on their union record. This could mean supporting more than one candidate and different parties in different parts of the country.
A more radical approach could look at unions having approved candidates who meet union friendly criteria who are put up for election. Candidates would have to win the nomination of union members in a democratic election and we could use the latest digital technology to facilitate a vibrant debate where politicians actually have to persuade and engage with union members.
Both systems would not limit themselves to providing funds but would encourage members to become involved in the campaigns of union endorsed candidates. No doubt some siren voices of party tribalism would object citing contradictions and the complexity of a different system.
But uniformity is not strength and I for one would be quite happy to tolerate a messy system that supports candidates such as Partrick Harvie, Cat Boyd, Mharri Black or Katy Clark and Neil Findlay. Surely, this is preferable to a system which supports candidates because of the colour of their rosette rather than the nature of their values.
A new approach could fit in with the temper of the times, reject party tribalism and respect that union values transcend that of party. In doing so, we could revitalise our members’ participation in the political process which in turn could drive the union values of fairness and justice into the heart of a new political discourse.