The Labour Party was founded 120 years ago by pioneering socialists and trade unionists who had seen through the false promises and capitalist ideology of the Liberals. They sought to build a mass party of the working class, a political wing of the trade union movement.
But that was then! History has turned full circle. Workers entered the 21st century with no mass party to represent and voice their aims, interests and aspirations. Labour’s attachment to the UK state, displayed during the referendum, is an expression of its deeper ideological devotion to capitalism. Since at least the 1990s, Labour has transformed into an openly capitalist party, the New Tories.
That was harshly exposed under the spotlight of Labour being in government from 1997-2010. Thirteen years in which Labour retained the most vicious anti-trade union laws in the whole of Europe; announced the slashing of 100,000 civil service jobs; scrapped the 10p tax rate for the lowest paid; implemented rampant privatisation; raided workers’ pensions; allowed the worst levels of inequality since 1886, according to Oxfam; and dragged us into the blood-soaked killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention Gordon Brown’s boasts of having ended the capitalist cycle of ‘boom and bust’ being smashed to smithereens by the bankers’ crisis of 2008.
Back in January 1999 the SSP launched the ‘Make the Break’ campaign, appealing to trade unions to end their funding of Labour’s New Tories, instead demanding a democratic choice of pro-trade union parties that workers could help fund through their union fees—on top of what individual workers could do by joining the SSP to pursue the goals long since abandoned by Labour.
Some unions did in subsequent years, but now the time is rotten ripe to ‘Make the Break’ and help build a mass, working class socialist party. Immeasurably more so than in 1999, especially after the mass politicisation of working class people that the referendum debate produced.
Yet many trade union leaderships persist with Labour affiliation and funding of their own worst enemies. It might be only a few pence a month that each union member gives to Labour (usually without knowing it!) if they’re in one of the affiliated unions. But over a period it adds up to £millions of members’ hard-earned money going to an outfit that couldn’t give a toss about low pay, inequality, workplace victimisation or the shackles on workplace rights imposed by successive Tory and Labour governments.
Given their track record, it’s obscene to note the level of trade union funding since 2001: Unite has given Labour £41.4million since then; Unison £19.6million; GMB £15.7million; Usdaw £12.29million; CWU £7.6million. And in 2013, the trade unions accounted for 77 per cent of the total funding enjoyed by Labour. It’s time to end this madness.
Thousands of workers in Labour-affiliated unions are in revolt, rightly furious at the treacherous role of Labour in blocking Scottish democracy, the right to rule our own country. And at bottom this is a rebellion against the continued anti-working class policies of capitalist austerity on offer from Labour.
Hundreds in each of several unions have furiously—but mistakenly—resigned from their union in disgust at being told to vote No by a leadership that failed to hold democratic debates or votes amongst members first. That includes Usdaw, GMB, CWU. Mistakenly because in most cases that leaves them with no alternative union that is recognised by their employer, leaving workers defenceless in the face of exploitation or victimisation.
Hundreds have taken the much more constructive route of staying in the union but withdrawing payment of the political levy to Labour, by filling in exemption forms. And vowing to fight for democracy in their own union. To illustrate the scale of this growing force determined to punish Labour, almost half my own Usdaw branch members have completed these forms in the past few weeks—with more to come! And that includes many who voted No, but feel abandoned and betrayed by Labour.
But it’s important to avoid the pitfall of believing that “the unions should stay away from politics”. That is impossible. Workers’ conditions, incomes and rights are determined by political decisions. Anti-union laws have helped reduce wages to their lowest share of national wealth in 60 years.
The pathetic level of the minimum wage—which has become the norm rather than the minimum—needs to be challenged politically. Not with Labour’s recent insulting promise of £8 by 2020—which would barely match inflation—but with the demand of the Scottish Socialist Party for a £10 minimum here and now.
Political decisions on public services, privatisation, fracking, Corporation Tax levels and a multitude of other issues deeply affect our daily lives. Workers need an organised socialist voice and vehicle. And as hundreds of thousands demonstrated by their participation during the referendum, we should never leave those decisions to an elite, the ‘political class’ of career politicians, most of whom have never done a day’s work outside the machinery of their own party and parliament.
We need to demand union members’ meetings and decision-making Scottish conferences, where as well as pursuing the fight for measures to tackle poverty, inequality and the dictatorship of capital, we can democratically decide which political parties members’ fees can contribute to. That would assist workers in choosing to help construct a mass socialist party that stands up, unashamedly, for the working class.
When contender for Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, talks of “representing both the prosperous and the poor”, he is repeating the nauseous, dishonest claptrap of Blairite New Labour. In reality they represent ‘the prosperous’, at the expense of ‘the poor’. At their recent Labour Gala Dinner, these worthies forked out £200 each in the city where people rely on food banks for handouts to avoid literal starvation. They have countered the Tory Coalition’s £25billion in cuts over two years with their own cuts over three years—of £27billion!
Workers and their unions don’t have to imprison themselves with a choice of two factions of Thatcherism. They should stop funding their Labour enemy, demand democratic choices and membership control of their unions’ political funds—and join the Scottish Socialist Party in pursuit of the democratic socialist aims of the labour movement pioneers.