Unions need not back Labour, but members should decide

As we reveal today, the RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, appears to be engineering a fight between his union and the Labour Party. Mr Crow, whose hard-left credentials are one of his strongest suits in internal RMT politics, is not a member of the Labour Party, although his union is affiliated.

As we reveal today, the RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, appears to be engineering a fight between his union and the Labour Party. Mr Crow, whose hard-left credentials are one of his strongest suits in internal RMT politics, is not a member of the Labour Party, although his union is affiliated.

By allowing five Scottish RMT branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party, it is pretty clear what Mr Crow is up to. The next step is likely to be a similar move by the Scottish region of the RMT, followed - one assumes - by plans to switch the RMT as a whole away from affiliation to the Labour Party.

Entire books can be - have been - written about the technicalities of trades union affiliation. But it comes down, in the end, to a relatively simple point. Unions are independent bodies. They may choose, mainly as a result of history and tradition, to affiliate to the Labour Party. But there is no reason why that should always be the case.

Mr Crow's behaviour may not make the best case for such freedom; it seems clear that the move to break away from the Labour Party is a deeply political act by Mr Crow and his hard-left allies as part of a wider political game. But irrespective of these particular circumstances, affiliation to the Labour Party - or, indeed, to any other party - should be a conscious choice, not an accident of history.

There is also a wider issue. Labour remains far too dependent on trades union cash. The RMT is not the first union to threaten to break away, although it may well be the first to act on that threat. Indeed, such words are a regular part of the political scene, as trades union leaders try to demonstrate to their members - and to the Labour Party - that they will not be bossed around by mere politicians. And so long as Labour needs their money, those threats will carry weight.

In the end, however, the decision whether or not to remain with Labour should rest not with Mr Crow, nor with his activist allies. Any affiliation should be decided by the people whose money will be used: the union's members.

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