Ties that bind a party to its roots: As the Transport and General Workers' Union begins its conference, Bill Morris argues that myths, misunderstanding and malice are undermining the importance of unions to Labour

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The Independent Online
THE WHOLE issue of links between the Labour Party and the unions affiliated to it has become surrounded by myth, misinformation and, on occasion, malice. It has now reached the point where the most urgent need is to re-establish a basis for rational debate and stop the row over the block vote and 'one member, one vote' from distracting the party from what should be its central task: presenting a clear and attractive alternative to a disastrous Government.

First, let's nail a myth. The trade unions are not opposed to one member, one vote for individual party members in selecting Labour candidates or choosing the party leader. We believe that is the best way for the 250,000 individual Labour party members to express their preferences. And we believe it is correct that these members should retain at least 60 per cent of the vote in selecting MPs.

Our concern is to ensure that union members, who founded and sustained the party throughout this century, continue to have some collective input into the important decisions it takes. This is critical if Labour's policies and candidates are to continue to represent Labour voters as a whole. Unions, such as the Transport and General Workers', are highly representative of working men and women who place their hopes in the Labour party.

By this I mean no disrespect to those who, like myself, are individual members of the party. But Labour's membership is much too small and too middle-class adequately to reflect Labour voters, and proposals to increase individual membership generally fail to overcome this.

Some object to the trade union influence in the party being exercised collectively. However, a democratically-based collectivism is the foundation of trade unionism and, indeed, the foundation of Labour's approach to society itself. At work, as in politics, this enhances the power of the individual to get a hearing and make a contribution. Trade unionism is based on the recognition that there is little the individual can do to improve things in society on his or her own.

It is also a fact of British labour history that the trade unions have been the main structure through which the working class has been able to express itself politically. Unlike in many European countries, working people in Britain have not been great joiners of political parties. They have looked first of all for collective expression through trade unions. Someday perhaps this will change, but driving the trade unions out of the Labour party today would mean marginalising millions of working people from the democratic politics of the nation. That is why I wish to make it clear once more that, as far as the T & G is concerned, there is no question of any divorce or separation from the party being on the agenda.

T & G members - and those of other unions - have repeatedly expressed their support for their union's collective political role - in political fund ballots, at union conferences and, most recently, in a special survey conducted by Mori for the T & G, G M B, Nupe and Cohse.

Support for the trade union block vote does not mean that the T & G believes the nature of the trade union link is beyond improvement or review. Indeed, my union took the lead in proposing the reduction of the union share of the vote at Labour party conference. The T & G is also ready to discuss proposals to make the union input into the selection of Labour candidates and the party leader more democratic, and be seen to be more democratic. Democracy should mean extending the involvement of trade union levy- payers in the union's collective input, not discarding that input altogether.

The present system is not perfect, and there are certainly loopholes. It is essential that all those who pay the political levy into their unions are given the opportunity to express their preference before the union's collective voice is heard. The T & G has proposed that a code of practice addressing these issues be drawn up. This could form the basis of a democratic solution to the issues involved. The bottom line is that the views of the political levy-paying members are accurately reflected when a union organisation casts its vote in Labour candidate selections.

Seen in this light, the millions of Labour party members affiliated through their unions are a great source of democratic legitimacy for the party. Candidates could be chosen with the votes of thousands of their constituents, and Labour's leaders would be elected through a process drawing in hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters (as John Smith was).

If Labour is to open the door to this prospect, it must also address the issue of malice. No one would accuse Mr Smith of anti-trade union attitudes. But when one sees, as I have, a Labour MP on television fulminating against 'faceless union bureaucrats', it is a sign that views previously the preserve of neanderthals in the Tory party are percolating into Labour.

We should be clear - the leaders of Britain's trade unions not only have faces, we also have franchises. We are elected in individual postal ballots, in some cases with far more votes than any single MP, to advance the economic, social and political interests of our members in a world where the economic and political cannot possibly be disentangled. The policies that I address at Labour party conferences are not some personal invention - they are formulated by the T & G's own conference, composed of hundreds of delegates elected by tens of thousands of trade unionists throughout the country.

We discharge our responsibilities to our members in a forward-looking way. Dubbing oneself a 'moderniser' gives one no monopoly on modern thinking. The T & G has taken the lead in addressing the changing nature of work and the workforce with our Link-Up campaign, aimed at part-time and women workers. We were proud to host a major conference on Clinton Economics earlier this year. And I will be recommending to my union conference this week, with the support of the T & G executive, that we support change in our national electoral system away from the first-past-the-post method.

The Labour Party needs trade unions. We are democratic, modern, working- class organisations that root Labour in the soil of British society. Building on this link is how to make the future ours.

The writer is General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

(Photograph omitted)