Monday, 26 October 2015

Conflict of Interest (21/04/12)

Here's an article I wrote for The Herald newspaper back in the year 2000 - which focuses on what I believe is an essentially corrupting relationship - between the Labour party and the trade unions.

My objection to the Labour/union link - especially in Scotland - is that it has become completely dishonest and undemocratic - since union leaders, being almost entirely and sometimes slavishly pro-Labour, don't reflect or represent the views of ordinary union members.

Which is what trade unions are supposed to do - they should should not become the industrial wing of the Labour party - because they take their eye off the ball, as we've seen all too clearly over equal pay.

I resigned my membership of the Scottish Labour party in 1999 - in what many people regarded as a protest over PFI - and I have highlighted a section of The Herald article which explains the grubby deal that Scotland's union leaders did with Gordon Brown back in 1999. 

A deal which was intended to spare Labour's blushes and Gordon Brown's obsession with PFI - in the run up to the first Scottish Parliament elections in May 1999 - by which time I was no longer a Labour party member of course.

So I laughed like a drain the other day when I heard union spokespeople condemn a PFI contract at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary - after the lights went out in an operating theatre.

Because union leaders made a rod for their own back long ago - when they chose to cuddle up to Gordon Brown and the Labour Government - and put party interests before the interests of their own members.

But things are changing - ordinary union members are no longer willing to be treated like fools - the penny has finally dropped, I'm pleased to say.

All members are equal, but….

Hands up! Who knows a full-time trade union official (FTO) who supports a party other than the Labour Party? Step forward the SNP, Scottish Lib Dems, Scottish Socialist Alliance, Greens, or the Scottish Conservatives. Even one of the smaller fringe parties! No takers? Hardly surprising. The fact is that almost all FTO’s are members of the Labour Party, and for good reason. The job does not openly demand slavish loyalty to Labour, after all the members reflect all political views and none. But anything else is a clear risk to your continued employment, and to your prospects of future promotion.

The trade unions in Scotland are at an historic crossroads. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament less than 40% of those who voted supported Labour. All the evidence is that a minority of union members supported Labour as well. Modernising the relationship between the unions and Labour would benefit both sides. The unions would re-assert their primary role, of agitating and organising on behalf of their members. A healthy, transparent system of one member one vote would result preventing union bosses acting as second rate politicians, as wild-eyed revolutionaries or just willing dupes of the Party leadership.

The creation of a national parliament has broken the mould of Scottish politics. Political tolerance and pluralism inside the unions is a long way off, but the Rubicon has been crossed. The trade union establishment has to listen to its members whose views are meant to be paramount. The umbilical link with Labour isn’t working anymore and, in a Scottish context, it is deeply undemocratic.

Not all trade unions are affiliated to Labour. The STUC is not an affiliated organisation (although the big unions call all the shots). Neither are the teachers’ or the journalists’ unions. The GMB is affiliated, so is the TGWU. UNISON, the biggest union, has a split personality.

Only part of UNISON is affiliated. Individual members who pay the Labour Party political levy join what is known as the Affiliated Political Fund (APF), but UNISON as a whole is not pledged to Labour. As an independent trade union UNISON should put the interest of its members first, and last. Every other consideration is secondary.

In the new politics of Scotland the employment practices of trade unions will become a cause for embarrassment, possibly shame. The unions need to practice what they preach by adopting professional recruitment strategies, or they will expose themselves to ridicule and legal challenge especially with the law strengthening in the filed of human rights.

For years trade unions have urged employers to adopt an equal opportunities approach to recruitment and selection, but unions are employers too! The unions demand that a workforce must broadly reflect the gender, ethnic and wider social mix of the community from which it is drawn. The self-same arguments applied to Scotland’s trade unions would produce a quite different, much fairer picture. A wider gene pool for selection would create a healthier species in the long run. Ultimately the members would benefit because they would be properly represented and reflected in the workforce.

Wearing your equal opportunities heart on your sleeve is no defence. Results matter. What matters is what doesn’t work, to paraphrase Tony Blair. If particular individuals or groups cannot get on the employment ladder, or become segregated into the less well paid less influential jobs, discrimination is taking place; no matter how well hidden, or subtle. If the same test is applied to the employment practices of unions in Scotland, non-Labour supporters are about as common as unicorns in George Square.

When groups of people are deliberately excluded the facts never lie. Positive action is the only solution. The first step is to acknowledge the existence of a problem. Change will only happen if the prevailing culture is exposed to the light and challenged, if those who do the challenging are protected from victimisation.

All unions have political views and rightly so. Politics is the stuff of life and trade unions must engage the political process if they are to represent members properly. The real question is whether the relationship with the Labour Party in Scotland can be defended in a modern political setting.

Relatively few trade unionists in Scotland are individual members of the Labour Party, but thousands support it financially through their subscriptions. Why? Because members are not encouraged to understand how the political levy operates. Most fail to appreciate that part of their union dues is being siphoned off for their leaders to dispense political largesse, which is not surprising since the system is hardly open and transparent. It is also extraordinarily difficult to stop paying the levy once you have started. Witness the following extract from one union rulebook –

4.1 A member of the union may at any time give notice on the form of exemption referred to in J.4.2 below, or by a written request to like effect, that she/he objects to contribute to the Political Fund. A form of exemption notice may be obtained by, or on behalf of, any member either by application at, or by post from, the Head Office or any branch office of the union…………………..”

4.4 – on giving such notice a member of the union shall be exempt, so long as her/his notice is not withdrawn, from contributing to the Political Fund of the union as from the 1st day of January next after the notice is given, or, in the case of a notice given within one month after the notice given to members under Rule J.3 hereof or the date on which a new member admitted to the union is supplied with a copy of these rules under rule J.4.11 hereof, as from the date on which the member is given.”

This helpful advice could be in Latin for all the sense it makes to ordinary members. The reality is that most pay the political levy unknowingly and unwittingly. Thousands of people every week or month, many part- time and low paid, hand money over to a party they do not even vote for, never mind actively support. Individual members are milked by their own organisation without having the faintest clue about what is really going on.

Union leaders use the enormous sums of money raised to gain influence and preferment inside the party, but the present system cannot be justified in a modern political setting. Time for a bit of good old-fashioned modernisation!

The central issue is about democracy; unions should be broadly representative of their members. To achieve this goal employment practices must reflect the best, not the worst. Equal opportunities is an empty phrase if the internal culture punishes dissent by bullying and intimidation. Even questioning the unwritten rules can be very difficult in the face of an established orthodoxy. Canteen cultures come in many different forms. Institutionalised hostility towards non-Labour views is the issue that dare not speak its name.

Different political views should to be a fact of life inside trade unions; otherwise they represent only a narrow cross section of their own members. All those who speak for the members must champion agreed policies, but this should not stifle free speech. Democracy inside a democratic organisation is about more than votes or standing for election. It is about freedom of expression; the right not to be punished for views which others find challenging or uncomfortable.

Of course, the unions are not operating under the direct orders of the Labour Party, but union leaders are rewarded for doing the party’s bidding and, sometimes, its dirty work. The honours system is alive and well, despite being condemned under the Tories. Having spent millions ingratiating themselves with the party some of the brothers are desperate for their gongs and other favours, as history shows and continues to demonstrate. Arise Lord Gormley, the miners’ friend! Arise Sir Ken Jackson, wielder of the block vote in the party’s hour of need!

At the 1999 STUC Congress one event stuck in my mind. The President’s Address condemned the Government’s PFI policy as a costly and divisive form of privatisation. In the process possible alternatives, floated by the Lib-Dems and the SNP were comprehensively rubbished, though without debate or consideration. Just before the election a UNISON publication described the other parties Public Service Trust proposals more generously; as a genuine, if flawed attempt to address trade union concerns. This sort of behaviour is the opposite of partnership; it is about using the unions for one-sided political ends.

The day before the STUC got underway a handful of union leaders met the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, secretly to devise a way of taking the heat out the PFI debate, which threatened to dominate the Congress. The key players were all individual card carrying members of the Labour Party whose main purpose was to avoid embarrassing the Government in the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections. In any other walk of life they would have been ashamed of their clear conflict of interest. Their cunning plan involved writing up an STUC statement praising the Government’s spending plans, which would leave the Congress facing both ways by criticising the Government and praising it at the same time. In effect the unions shot themselves in both feet at the behest of the Labour Party, which says it all really. Gordon Brown rewarded the great sacrifice of those involved by making an unscheduled appearance at the President’s dinner, which was nice of him. After all one good turn deserves another.

Much of the union support to the Labour Party is hidden and undeclared. At election times staff are seconded to the Party on a fulltime basis, often working out of Labour Party premises rather than their own union offices. A blind eye is turned to staff devoting their energies to the Labour Party campaign instead of their members’ interests. Staff are allowed routinely to campaign in support of their own political views at the members’ expense. In the Neil Committee climate of public accountability and public standards, this hidden subsidy to the Labour Party ought to be costed and declared. Providing support in kind makes no difference.

If a member of staff tried to engage in such activity on behalf of the Lib-Dems or SNP, they would be given short shrift .If a member of staff engaged in such activity without authority or approval, they would leave themselves open to disciplinary action, big time.

Michael McGahey’s name was invoked many times at the 1999 STUC in Glasgow. He was revered as the workers’ friend, as an uncompromising negotiator on behalf of Scotland’s miners. Of late the political establishment had grown fond of Michael. Many of his new found admirers would have demonised his Communist beliefs when he was alive, but now queued up to pay homage to his independent mind and fighting spirit .A lion praised by donkeys, to miss-quote a phrase used during the 1985 strike. It is often the fate of heroic figures to be lionised by the establishment, but only after they no longer pose any threat.

The new politics in Scotland demands a new trade unionism. The unions must learn to deal with issues on their merit, not on the basis of an entrenched political culture which reflects the views of only a small section of the membership. Tony Blair has shorn New Labour of any sentimental attachment to trade unions, rightly so in many ways given where the Prime Minister is coming from. New Labour has reinvented itself to placate the fears of voters in middle England, plain common sense from a UK perspective. In Scotland the position is fundamentally different; Labour is the party of the establishment and has been for generation. The response of the trade unions should now be equally pragmatic and hard headed. The unions should reassert themselves as truly independent organisations that will stand up for their members’ interests whether an election is underway, just finished or just around the corner.

In the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP and Lib Dems both campaigned on a more progressive social programme than the Labour Party. Faced with this reality the trade unions had an opportunity to box clever; to temper their pro-Labour bias; to help build a wider political consensus; to become more become professional and even-handed. Instead they pursued an unrequited love affair with Labour, hoping for a return of modern day equivalent of beer and sandwiches, the odd power breakfast with the Chancellor perhaps. Modernising the relationship is about democracy and doing the right thing. Labour is not an enemy of the trade unions, New or Old. Replacing one tyranny with another is not the answer. A government should be treated as a potential partner, whatever its colour, but it should still be treated as a government.

Acting as though it was part of the government, as an alternative government in some ways, cost the trade unions dear in the 1970’s. Acting as a cipher for government as we enter a new millennium is equally short sighted. The unions have an important social function to fulfil, one that should transcend party politics and complement the new political settlement in Scotland. The future does not lie in a strategy that would turn the unions into the industrial wing of the Labour Party. Mick McGahey would not hesitate. Neither would Tony Blair for that matter. The unions have nothing to lose but their chains!

Mark A Irvine

14 February 2000

NB Mark Irvine was UNISON’s Head of Local Government in Scotland and its chief negotiator until November 1999. He is now an independent adviser and commentator.