This is what 21st century unionism should look like

The pooling of democratic funds should not be funnelled exclusively into any single party, particularly one so frequently hostile to worker's interests. Instead union funds should be dispersed to projects outside Westminster, chosen and allocated by their members. This could transform the role of Britain's unions.

Dan Hind
11 July 2013

Flickr/Erica S - some rights reserved

At the moment members of unions with a political fund pay a small amount into it unless they decide to opt out. According to the Guardian:

Currently, the union's leadership then decide how many levy payers to affiliate automatically to the Labour party paying an annual fee of £3 per member. In future a union will have to ask the union member if he or she wishes to be affiliated to the party, so it is a conscious decision to support the party.

If, in the case of Unite, only 100,000 of its 1 million political levy-payers say they want to be affiliated to Labour, income to the party goes down, and the money remaining in the union's political fund correspondingly rises. It would be open for a union to donate directly to Labour from this fund, but if it becomes clear very few party members are choosing to affiliate, it will be harder for the union leadership to justify making big donations to Labour.

Ed Miliband wants to change the rules so that only those who actively want to become affiliate members actually do so: "I do not want any individual to be paying money to the Labour party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so. Individual trade union members should choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee, not be automatically affiliated."

This has caused a great deal of controversy. My own union (the National Union of Journalists) doesn't have a political fund but I think that those who do should welcome Miliband's proposal and take it further. The funds in a political levy ought really to be subject to much more complete democratic oversight and control by the members. The fund themselves can then become opportunities for deliberation and debate, an opportunity for working people to engage much more directly in the political life of the country - the stated desire of many union leaders.

Members could propose projects, parties and campaigns that they wanted to see funded and would be able to use digital technology to discuss them, and decide whether - and to what extent - they wanted to support them. Some of what members decided to do would mirror existing union campaigns. But it would also be possible for new ideas to gain more traction, even if they don’t necessarily appeal to the union leadership. For example, union administrators have been noticeably reluctant to create their own media, even though the costs of reaching large audiences are far lower now than they were even a few years ago. A political fund that was open to direction by all members on an egalitarian basis would, if ordinary members wanted it to, provide funding for networked video and print journalism, new research and investigations. Recent research shows that the general public are woefully ill-informed about key issues. It is madness for working people to continue to rely on the existing mix of state and private media institutions when they have it in their power to create their own.

Media reform happens to be my area of particular concern. But a system in which everyone could make their own voice heard would be open to all kinds of initiatives that currently don’t receive much attention from unions. Industrial democracy, for example, is not always a union priority. But a networked membership might want to act together to strengthen the cooperative and employee-waned sectors of the economy. Even currently marginal matters like monetary reform might find their advocates. This would be welcome since we are unlikely to put an end to rule by bankers until we understand the mechanisms by which this rule is imposed.

Technology would allow the process of allocating funds to take place with a great deal of sophistication. For example, crowd-funding platforms could be used to allocate funds to particular projects. Once each project raised the funds requested the amount take from each individual's pool of funds would be reduced with each new donation. A campaign to reform the media that needed £15,000 and had 150,000 supporters would only "cost" each of them 10 pence. Ahem.

Of course, many people would want to give their funds to the Labour party and get on with their lives. But they would also be free to support particular bits of the labour movement they liked, too. The many millions of wild-eyed fans of Simon Danczuk, for example, would be free to fund his valiant attempts to defeat Stalinism. A small and unrepresentative handful might choose to support Danczuk’s nightmare, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, instead. And, yes, that does mean that some union money will find its way to the Conservative Party. Although I suspect that Conservative voters who are trade unionists will tend to leave the funding of their preferred party to hedge fund managers and shady oligarchs, as many of them do now.

Some of those who aren't comfortable with a Labour-or-nothing strategy could divide their support between Labour and initiatives aimed at a deeper transformation of economy and society. Relatively small funds from the unions could be multiplied by projects along the lines Aaron Peters discusses here. A localised approach in a first-past-the-electoral system would make a huge difference, too.

I am going to repeat that for emphasis.

A localised approach in a first-past-the-electoral system would make a huge difference, too.

There's great value in aggregating political funds. People on ordinary incomes can't do much unless they act together. But it is a mistake to leave leaders to distribute those aggregated funds as they wish. They will be tempted to use the power they have to suit themselves. We shouldn't demonise them for that. They are only human, after all. It would better, though, if each of us exercises some little individual power in a context where we are able to debate how to do so, and then to join forces in pursuit of our preferred outcomes.

Modern technology means that individuals can communicate their preferences to one another much more cheaply than was once possible. People like to make a difference in the world. We only have to look at the momentum that 38 Degrees and Avaaz are able to generate by establishing a clear link between individual contributions and the achievements of the group, in the form of headlines, u-turns by government, and so on. Funds made transparent and accessible to decisions by trade unionists themselves would, I think, become a useful way of attracting new members. Unions would become vibrant institutions, in which members could learn new things about themselves and others, could discover again how it feels to be on the winning side. The combination of collective strength and individual discrimination, if managed properly, could be tremendously appealing.

Republican democracy - in which we create a power through assembly and determine together how this power is used - has its own charisma. Besides, I fear that we are going to need much better information about one another, and much more experience in finding common cause - the “thicker links” that Peters discusses in his piece. There is every sign that the economy is being restructured to deliver ever more of national output to a tiny handful of lucky rent-seekers. We will be helpless to stop this unless we start paying more attention to matters that are currently off the table.

As I say, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) doesn't have a political fund at the moment, having narrowly rejected creating one in 2004. Former NUJ President and expense account prankster Denis MacShane and the late night derision-monger Jeremy Paxman worried that it would undermine the principle of journalistic independence. But a fund organized on the terms above would not do so. The NUJ would be able to gather and disperse funds to projects that its members wanted to support while the union itself remained free to represent them in the workplace in the same impartial way that it does now.

I'd like to propose to my fellow members that we create a political fund, in accordance with due process. I further propose that we structure it in a way that is thoroughly worthwhile in itself, and a newsflash for the rest of the trade union movement.


A shorter version of this piece originally appeared at Dan's blog, The Return of the Public

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