The Labour Party should pay more attention to the needs of people in non-affiliated unions

Hugh Lanning was deputy general secretary of PCS until June 2013, below is his article from the most recent edition of the Unions21 journal Forefront, which can be downloaded here.


ALL THE publicity in the wake of the selection row in Falkirk has focused on Unite, trade unions and money. Although an important debate, it ignores the reality that most of the trade union movement is not affiliated to the Labour Party.


As, until recently, a senior official in PCS — a major non-affiliated union — and an ‘out’ Labour Party member, I had occasion to raise with the party its relations with non-affiliated unions — or rather the lack of them.


Of the 58 unions in the TUC, 28 have political funds and just 14 are party affiliated. Most of these decisions are historical rather than political. The affiliated unions are primarily those with traditional blue-collar origins, which established the party or affiliated before World War II. The non-affiliated unions, in the main, are the professional and public sector unions that emerged after the war. Many have created political funds in response to legislative pressure, but use this resource to carry out campaigning rather than to affiliate.


Other political organisations target and focus resources on organising within these unions, but the Labour Party does not. In fact, the party has never had a strategy about its relations with what is now the largest part of the trade union movement. Yet these non-affiliates number among their membership many Labour Party members, activists and supporters.


People in unions such as NUT, UCU, PCS and Prospect represent upwards of 25% of the identifiable individual union members within the Labour Party and, in reality, probably more. Non-affiliates also represent millions of voters who work and believe in public services. Many are low paid, women and a significant proportion are black. Others are professional public servants. Given the nature of the work they do, many are also active in civil society organisations. Put this way, it is strange that they have not become a target group for Labour.


Why not? Obviously the Labour Party is mindful of the relationship with Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) unions. What is the point of affiliating if you can get the service and access for free? Further, there are no organised structures for developing a relationship with non-affiliated unions, except through the TUC.


Non-affiliated unions will, of necessity, have a more distant relationship with the party. But they have much to contribute and are keen to influence. This is a well organised constituency that any potential Labour government can ill-afford to ignore.


Given the changes in the trade union movement and the growth of broader social movements, the Labour Party will have to learn to work with organisations not tied by loyalty or affiliation. Whatever happens in the future about the funding of political parties, the number of identifiable affiliated members within unions is likely to continue to decline.


The challenge for the Labour Party is to develop new ways of communicating and organising within this climate.


It will be critical to identify issues on which it can campaign together with, or at least in parallel to, trade unionists. This can best be done by trying to identify common areas of concern — growth, jobs and tax justice are obvious examples of areas of overlap, if not total agreement.


In both private and public sector workplaces there is a climate of fear and insecurity.


The pressure during the political conference season will be the demand to repeal all antitrade union laws. A better framework would be to focus on the workplace and identify how the rights and lives of all workers can be improved.


Ironically, identifying solutions that will work for all unions, not just a ‘Warwick 3’ deal with those that are affiliated, could produce better results for everybody.



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