Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The history of UNISON's two section political fund

Red Pepper asked me to explain UNISON's political fund arrangements for the uninitiated following Ed Miliband's reference to them in questions after his speech yesterday ( I hope that regular readers (not all of whom share all my views) will feel that I did a reasonably good factual job.

In that post I did say "this isn't the time or place for a detailed history of the UNISON arrangements and their consequences" - and indeed that wasn't.

But this might be. And I should declare an interest, in that my Labour Link NEC colleagues decided once again this month not to elect me to the Labour Link Committee...

Prior to the creation of UNISON twenty years ago, two of the three
"former partner unions" were Labour affiliates, whereas NALGO (which
brought with it the majority of members to the new Union) had voted
down proposals to affiliate some years previously.

NUPE and COHSE did not want merger to disaffiliate them, but NALGO did
not expect its members to vote for a merger if this meant an affiliation which they had rejected. The negotiators hit upon the "fix" of two political funds, although (following discussion with the
Certification Officer who oversees trade union mergers) it became clear that the law only allows a trade union to have one political fund, and so the new Union was established with one fund, which had
two sections.

Initially the two sections of the Political Fund were known as the "Former NUPE/COHSE Fund" and the "Former NALGO Fund" and members remained in their former fund (with new members joining the appropriate section for the branch they joined). After two years, this interim period came to an end and members were permitted to switch between the two sections, which became known as the "General Political Fund" (GPF) and the "Affiliated Political Fund" (APF) (now known as "UNISON Labour Link"). Indeed members can pay into both sections of the fund if they make a small additional contribution.

The APF developed its own autonomous structures within UNISON as set out in the initial Rule Book. Attempts by opponents of Labour affiliation to force a debate on affiliation within UNISON were
frustrated in court by the design of the UNISON Rule Book (, which (it became clear) had been written with a clear intent to preserve affiliation even though only a minority of members chose to affiliate.

Indeed, over the years it has become increasingly obvious that insulating the APF from rank and file pressure was an important aspect of the two section political fund, since neither section of the fund is directly accountable to UNISON Conference or even the UNISON
National Executive, but only to the specific National Committee established for it by the Rule Book.

This meant that, whilst Labour was in Government, motions to UNISON
Conference which sought to place demands on the Labour Party were
ruled out of order. All that most members of the Union could do was ask Conference to request that the National Labour Link Committee considered making such demands. Labour Link payers did eventually force the introduction of directly elected members of the National
Labour Link Committee alongside NEC members, but the Labour Link
structure remains a structure of essentially toothless annual
"forums". Following an early shock in which Geoff Martin led the APF
left to victory in opposition to Tony Blair over Clause Four, the Union machine has become increasingly comfortable with its control of the Labour Link.

UNISON members, on the other hand, became increasingly dissatisfied, for example with the vote on Foundation Hospitals in Blair's second term (in which the Government would have lost were it not for the "UNISON group" of MPs voting more decisively against UNISON policy than the House of Commons as a whole. Members could not see what "UNISON Labour Link" was doing for them.

This dissatisfaction culminated in a Conference decision to launch a review of the political funds early in the last decade, in which the Socialist Party's preferred option of a "third" section to the political fund (which could have supported non-Labour candidates) was considered alongside the options of the status quo and outright disaffiliation. This process of consultation (which excluded the option of a single section political fund under the control of UNISON Conference preferred by many on the left) did not lead to change (which given that the "change" option was absurd is hardly surprising - it could have led to UNISON supporting more than one candidate in the same election).

The two section political fund came through thirteen years in which a Labour Government was (at the very best) a distinctly mixed blessing for UNISON members and is therefore a robust way of retaining affiliation to Labour in the face of mass opposition from trade union
members. It may not have served the interests of our members, but it served its purpose.

However, by the end of this period dissatisfaction with the utter inadequacy of the Labour Link forced our General Secretary - at the 2009 Conference - to trespass on the autonomy of the APF by calling - in his Conference speech - for a moratorium on Constituency Development Plans with their selective reinstatement on political grounds.

Over the years the proportion of members in the APF has fallen from
40% at the time of merger to 33% now. Of course now, after twenty years, the vast majority of UNISON members have only ever been in UNISON. As I explain in the Red Pepper piece, the administrative arrangements for allocation of members who do not express a preference is vital to keeping the size of that minority up.

Those of us who believe in the link between Labour and the trade unions (and I believe that its loss would be a strategic defeat for the working class) ought not to express admiration for political fund arrangements which have prevented our members from making best use of the link because they were always designed to preserve affiliation with or without support, whilst insulating our Labour Party work from rank and file pressure.

I'm not suggesting that the arrangements in other unions are, or have been, any better. In some ways, UNISON's structures and lay democracy (however limited) expose our shortcomings to view more clearly.

The link we should fight to defend ought, however, to be a living, breathing, democratic link, which the APF certainly never has been.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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