Unions and Politics
I suppose you could regard Michael Gove’s speech on the relationship between trade unions – and Unite the union in particular – and the Labour party as an understandable bit of electioneering. But underneath the somewhat forced hysteria about Unite, the BA dispute and Charlie Whelan what he really seems to be saying (perhaps what he really wants to say?) is that it’s wrong for trade unions to use their financial resources to influence the policy direction of political parties – and coming from someone who could be in the Cabinet in less than a few months, that’s rather worrying.
Surely in our democracy, any organisation based in the UK should be allowed to deploy its resources in whatever way it thinks will further its particular aims and objectives. Employers have their own financial links to political parties and influence policy via organisations such as the CBI and the Institute and Directors – and unions do the same kind of thing. The issue is the system of regulation that governs how contributions are made and how transparent and open this process is and how this then allows the public to make their own judgements about the policies that political parties come up with.
Fifteen of the fifty-nine TUC affiliate unions also affiliate to the Labour Party. It’s easy to find out who they are and why they support the Labour party – it’s all there on their website www.unionstogether.org.uk. In addition, the mechanism that allows them to use member’s subs to fund the party is heavily regulated. To be able to spend ANY money on ANY form of political campaigning (not just funding the Labour party) unions have to ballot members on setting up a political fund and any decision on affiliation to a political party would also be subject to reference to the membership. Even after a union has affiliated, individual members then have the right to opt out of the political levy, i.e. they have a choice as to whether or not a proportion of their subs are given to the party the union is affiliated to.
This regulation, which incidentally is much heavier than that governing political contributions made by private companies, strikes me as justification for saying that trade union money is, perhaps with the exception of the subs that individual party members pay, the cleanest money in politics. We know who is donating and why they are doing it and the very fact Michael Gove was able to fill his speech with details of how much unions have contributed to the party is proof of the transparency.
But I guess what is most worrying about Gove’s speech is how it betrays a deep antipathy towards trade unions. He gives the impression that he believes unions are anti-ambition and against people getting on in life and can only act as a drag on anything ‘progressive’. But if that’s really what he thinks, Mr Gove really needs to get up to date. Yesterday, the TUC published its latest Touchstone pamphlet “The Road to Recovery – how effective unions can help build the economy’ which highlights not only the benefits that union membership gives to individual employees but also the broader economic and social benefits that effective unions bring to workplaces. These include BETTER long-term employment relations, reduced staff turnover and a positive impact on the effects of workplace change or innovation.
Over 6 million people know about the work of modern progressive unions in the UK. They appreciate and recognise the value of our 200,000 union reps who as well as assisting them when they face individual problems, give them opportunities to update their skills and work to provide them with healthier, safer, greener workplaces. They know the real work and value of unions in the 21st century – it’s for others to catch up with them.