The “historic” decision by the RMT to allow Branches to financially support other parties has certainly upset the Labour party, which is dependent on union money for its survival. Given that it looks certain that Scottish RMT branches will vote to support the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) at the next election there is now every chance that the RMT - one of the founders of the Labour Party - will finally cut its links with Labour.
The decision has been welcomed by people across the union movement and will only fuel the groundswell of feeling amongst many unions to follow the RMT example. Here at Catalyst, we view unions paying funds to Labour as the equivalent to paying someone to beat you up. However, while we welcome moves to cut the link with Labour, we are concerned about where the union money will otherwise end up.
In the RMT, a lot of effort has gone into trying to stop union money going to Labour, but little thought has been given to what else to do with it. At the RMT conference, amid the uproar at dumping Labour union money, it was promised to just about anyone, from Ken Livingstone to George Galloway - just as long as they were not New Labour.
The danger is that the union money will simply end up funding yet another “left” party, such as the SWP or The Socialist Party (the militant tendency). The unions built the Labour Party as a means of helping workers, only to end up one hundred or so years later with the current cold shower in the form of the Blair government.
Do we really want to repeat the same mistakes again? For years, the Socialist Party (then Militant) argued that we should change Labour from within; now they are saying that the unions can no longer use their affiliation to influence Labour Governments. In fact, even a cursory look at past Labour governments demonstrates that, once in power, Labour always acts in its own interests and not the unions or the working class. This is not because the odd Labour Party leadership sold out the workers; it is because of the very nature of political parties.
Political parties exist outside of the economic day-to-day struggle of the working class. They are elite organisations that claim unions should limit themselves to economic struggles such as pay and conditions, and leave the politics to the more sophisticated politicians. This is deeply insulting to the rest of us, but that isn't the worst of it. Time and again, from the Bolsheviks in Russia to the Labour Party here, we have seen that, once in power, politicians of any ilk start acting in their own interests, primarily by ignoring the interests of the working class and pandering to anything which might help them get re-elected or, better still, promoted.
Why do we need politicians?
We don't. In fact, they are the last thing we need. The failure of the union movement in Britain is that they have left politics to politicians instead of constantly fighting for political alternatives as well as economic gains. They got by in the boom years of the 1960s, but when capitalism goes into slump, real political alternatives are needed. Without them, the unions are left stranded or, worse still, helping to impose bosses cuts in order to keep companies afloat.
The millions of pounds of members' money should not go to the politicians. It should be used to help organise resistance to capitalism. Why is it that union members taking strike action have to rely on donations when the unions are awash with money? This is just one use - there is a desperate need for money to help workers in all sorts of ways to take action against the bosses. Support, solidarity, literature, organising, direct actions – all are easier and more effective if funds are made available.
The crucial reason why the unions have no imagination about using the political funds themselves is that they have yet to come to terms with the fact that the day-today struggle is part of the wider struggle for a better world. Workers' organisations have to be overtly political - the struggle for a better future is the task of the workers ourselves, and cannot be left to any politicians, however ‘socialist' they sound.