THE SMALL PROBLEM OF MONEY
One reason Labour is unlikely to break its links with the trade unions is its reliance on them for cash.
Trade union donations comprise more than half the party’s income nationally in a non-election year (£4.7 million out of a total of £8.8 million income in 1993, the last year for which figures are available, came from affiliated organisations) and the unions have pledged large sums for the party’s general election war-chest. The unions also contribute generously to local Labour parties and towards MPs’ research and administration costs.
Although Labour’s membership has increased in the past year, many of the new members are paying subscriptions at reduced rates(some of them so low that it costs more to service them than they pay in subs).The party’s income from corporate donors is minuscule.
So, despite the success that the party had in securing donations from individuals in the run-up to the 1992 general election (more than £2 million came in, mostly in small donations, during the election campaign), no one in the party believes that it could fight the next general election campaign without union support – although afterwards, if it wins the election, it could reduce its reliance on the unions by introducing state funding of political parties. The problem here, however, is that a subsequent Tory government could abandon state funding – and if Labour had by then alienated the unions, it could find itself in a financial crisis worse than anything it has seen in the past 15 years.
REFORMING THE UNION LINK: THE OPTIONS
All but one of the elements of the Labour-union relationship would be difficult to change
The role of the trade unions in Labour’s constitution has changed in recent years – but it remains crucial to the operation of the party at every level. There are four key areas where the unions play critical constitutional roles: the annual party conference, the National Executive Committee, constituency Labour parties and leadership elections.
Party conference The union role at Labour’s annual conference was modified by rule changes in 1993.The unions now have 70 per cent of the vote at party conference (as against 30 per cent for CLPs) and each union may, if it wishes, split its share of votes instead of wielding it as a block(although few do). According to the rules laid down in 1993: “The balance of voting between the two sections shall be reviewed by the National Executive Committee and annual conference once individual membership exceeds 300,000, with a view to changing the balance in favour of constituency parties provided that such adjustment does not reduce the proportion of the total vote cast by affiliated organisations to less than 50 per cent.”
Tony Blair seemed to interpret this as meaning that, now that membership has reached the 300,000 threshold, the union share of the vote at this year’s conference could be reduced to 50 per cent by a meeting of the NEC in the next couple of months: most others reckon that the rule implies that conference needs to approve the change before it happens (which would mean it could not take effect until the 1996 conference). Still others argue that the NEC should recommend not an immediate reduction to 50 per cent, but a phased reduction. How vigorous the argument about the interpretation of the rules will be is difficult to judge, but few believe that either the left or the trade unions will put up much of a fight if Blair insists on a rapid reduction to 50 per cent. No other reforms of the union role at conference have so far been suggested.
National Executive Committee Probably the most important role that unions have in Labour’s organisation is in the National Executive Committee (NEC), the body, 25-strong apart from the leader and deputy leader, that is responsible for the day-to-day running of the party and supervision of its policy-making. Through their membership of the NEC, trade unions are represented on all the party’s policy-making bodies: the domestic and international policy committee, the six NEC-shadow cabinet joint policy commissions and the National Policy Forum.
Twelve NEC seats are reserved for the trade unions: they are chosen by union votes at party conference (invariably after a little behind-the-scenes fixing). The unions also effectively determine who sits in the five-member women’s section of the NEC through their votes at conference. The unions have no influence over the election of the seven members chosen by constituency Labour parties or the single member chosen by affiliated socialist societies.
Proposals for changing the composition of the NEC have been recurrent, and have come from many different directions. In recent years, feminists and the left have argued that the women’s section should be elected by the Labour women’s conference, while Labour councillors have made the case for their own section of the NEC.
The problem with NEC reform for the leadership is simple: the massive union representation and the role of the unions in electing the women’s section act as a counterbalance to the constituency section whenever the latter shifts to the left (as it did from the mid-1970s until the mid- 1980s), and a simple reduction in the union role now could exacerbate tensions between party and government if the next Labour government loses popularity among ordinary party members. This problem might be overcome if reduction in the union presence on the NEC were compensated for by the introduction of a section for councillors and perhaps one for MPs and MEPs – but reform along these lines might create an unmanageably large committee or massive resentment among the unions or both.
Constituency Labour parties At the local level, trade unions affiliate to constituency Labour parties(CLPs), which allows their members to join at a reduced rate, gives them representation (up to a maximum of five delegates) on the constituency party’s general committee (GC), and allows them the right to nominate candidates in parliamentary selections. The GC handles everyday management of the CLP, can submit resolutions to annual conference, elects a CLP’s officers (including delegates to annual conference) and draws up shortlists in parliamentary selections. Before the introduction of one member, one vote for parliamentary selections and leadership elections, the GC also decided the CLP’s choice of putative MP and leader.
There have been no firm proposals from the Labour leadership for radical changes in the union role at CLP level-not least because, despite the recent increase in Labour Party membership, many local parties are too small to function without the participation of union delegates on the GC. There is some pressure for the extension of OMOV to the election of delegates to party conference, and there have always been complaints that the union delegate system is abused by political factions of left and right: the criterion for a union to have the right to representation on a CLP’s GC is merely that it has members registered in a particular constituency. How exactly such abuse could be stopped is difficult to workout unless union representation on GCs were to be removed entirely.
Leadership elections The role of the unions in Labour leadership elections was drastically reduced after uproar over the way that big union leaders announced their support for John Smith as leader after the 1992 general election. Under the system introduced by rule changes in 1993, Labour’s leader and deputy leader are elected by a three-section electoral college(comprising Labour MPs and MEPs, individual party members and affiliated unions and other organisations), with each section apportioned a third of the total vote and each section voting on a one person, one vote basis. It is extremely unlikely that any proposals for changing this system will emerge in the foreseeable future – not least because the Labour Party constitution forbids returning to constitutional changes for three years after they are approved except in emergencies.