Come the elections, we have to face some very hard facts. And one of them is that, without dramatic action, the Tories seem on course to gain power with all that would mean for the destruction of public services, pensions and just about everything else – along with an NHS even more privatised than the worst of any of the current plans. http://unisonactive.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-can-unisons-political-fund-be-more_13.html
Obvious eh? Well, you wouldn’t think so when you hear musings that opposition might not be a bad thing for Labour. It might get the party back in touch with its grass roots. It might re-focus on socialism. It might even build membership.
But what about our union’s membership? One advantage of the age profile of UNISON members is that many can remember the Thatcher years and the long term (if not permanent) damage done to our services and our manufacturing industry. Remembering interest rates in double figures and mortgage payments that doubled over a period of months – and stayed there for years.
Remembering the destruction of communities at one end while financial greed was elevated to a virtue at the other – a greed we are still paying for.
All this and more while Labour was busy fighting itself in opposition.
Do we then leave our members high and dry while we suffer years of Tory oppression as the Labour Party re-focusses, and lurches possibly even further to the right?
There may be alternatives in the devolved governments, like a left-leaning (for now anyway) SNP in Scotland, but there is no realistic alternative to Labour for working people in the UK. And where the economy is concerned, it is the UK government that matters.
Surely that is where UNISON’s political fund should come in. If there isn’t a realistic alternative that will invest in services, infrastructure and housing, create jobs, control the bankers, avoid wars, ensure the rich pay their way through real progressive taxation and build and maintain our shining beacon of a health service, then we have to change Labour. That means we have to keep – and use - the link.
Now we know that this may not be music to the ears of some parties who would rather have the levy payers’ money (without any policy interference please) coming their way. But it is the reality of politics at UK level.
On the other hand, we could go ‘independent’. Have no formal political links. Stay on the fringes and do all the campaigning through the General Political Fund. But that would miss a huge opportunity to build on the dual strategy that UNISON’s unique political fund offers. As long as we make it work for us.
That means, on the one hand, maintaining, building and democratising the LabourLink. It means re-focussing the campaign for UNISON policies in the Labour Party but, crucially, it also means getting members active in organising, formulating and campaigning for UNISON policies at all levels in the party.
Activists and full-timers need to keep at the front of their mind that we are campaigning for UNISON policies in the party, not vice versa. The other parties may wish to note that too.
Alongside this, it means GPF projects that link with communities; that energise and involve members at branch level; that give activists easier access to the resources and that devolve more practical decision-making to regions. Projects that politicise, that get people thinking and that chip away at the apathy brought about by disengagement from the political process.
Full time officers and lead activists should be taking the initiative in a structured programme of policy schools, political campaigning and briefings. These have to be relevant to the non-anorak world, making practical links to real benefits in the workplace. Perhaps we need to start by reminding members where the rights they have actually came from.
UNISON’s political fund has been backed by members in successive ballots. Despite the regular Conference slanging matches, the fund retains a level of credibility that sees members involve themselves more than in most other unions. The challenge is to involve them even more, from local campaigning through to the highest policy levels.
Like absolutely everything in the trade union movement, organisation and a respect for the collective is the key to that. That is going to be needed in buckets to push back the Tory tide. It’s going to be needed even more if we let them back in.