Labour plan would reform union links

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A LABOUR 'supporters' club' is expected to be proposed by party leaders to reform the party's links with the trade union movement.

The supporters' club is the brainchild of Tom Sawyer, a leading union voice on the party's national executive, and is one of a number of options to be put to the Labour conference in October.

Members of the supporters' club would pay a reduced affiliation fee to the party in return for some voting rights. The aim would be to widen the grassroots base of the Labour Party.

But the supporters' club would also transform the links between the trade unions and the party by making the members play a more active role. Associate members could take part in reselections by constituency parties of MPs and candidates.

They could also be given the right to choose delegates to the party conference and the size of the block vote that their trade union could carry. This was one of the four options put to a meeting of the party committee which is studying the reform of Labour's relationship with the trade unions.

The committee, which includes Bryan Gould, the defeated candidate for the leadership, is due to publish a report in December.

Some form of enhanced role for union members within the Labour Party has been discussed following unsuccessful attempts to create a mass membership party from political levy payers.

The so called 'levy plus' option is believed to attract support as it breaks the concept of collective affiliation at the heart of the debate over the block vote.

The discussion document says: 'Extending this process, since the individual trade unionists would receive a vote as members of the party, so the argument goes, the need for the block vote would vanish.'

All options put in front of the committee, apart from maintaining the existing arrangements, come with a warning about the financial consequences for Labour.

Both the 'levy plus' proposal and the creation of an affiliated or associate membership scheme, whereby an individual has to 'contract in' to become an associate with a specified set of rights, could lead to a loss of revenue.

'It may be objected that the establishment of an associate membership scheme will lead to a loss of both affiliated and individual members since there are non-Labour affiliated members among the present number, and many Labour activists are already party members,' it says.

Unions are likely to be asked to make up the fall in affiliation fees with an increase in general campaign contributions.

The paper recognises a further obstacle to the affiliated or levy plus members - the implication of 'second class membership'.

Suggested union member contributions of 10p a week or pounds 5 a year compared with pounds 15 for regular Labour Party membership would need to carry with it some form of diminished rights. The paper believes that associate membership would provide a stepping stone for trade unionists to become full members. It would also allow recruitment from non- affliated unions.

'Once they had become involved in an ongoing and direct relationship with Labour, levy payers would be more likely to want to become active in their local party as well,' it states.

Such optimism is not shared by several large unions. 'The whole thing is unrealistic. It has been dreamt up by someone who knows very little of what is going on at the grass roots,' said one union and Labour activist.