To affiliate or not affiliate, that is the question … how unions work informally with the Labour Party

While some unions have affiliated to the Labour Party, others have recently debated, but ruled out, formal affiliation. For example, delegates at this year’s NUT annual conference narrowly rejected a call for a “review of our political campaigning”. (The union and the ATL teaching union formally merged in September.)

This included “consideration that affiliated unions have a formal role in policy formulation”, raising the question “of whether a different relationship with political parties, particularly Labour, could promote the interests of NUT members”.

Instead, delegates voted to instruct the union’s executive to explore how best the union can assist in, and engage with, the development of the party’s education policies. They did this while recognising the “anti-austerity leadership of the Labour Party committed to an alternative to the economic orthodoxy of cuts in public spending and actively supporting the trade unions”.

Among other things, this will mean meetings between national officers and the shadow education team to ensure that Labour’s education policies reflect “as closely as possible the principles outlined in the NUT manifesto, Stand up for education”.

The union also recognises that the policies will not develop solely out of a “bilateral dialogue” with Labour, but that campaigning alongside parents, community organisations, other education campaigns, other political parties opposing austerity and the wider labour movement is also important.

As a result of the conference decision, NUT policy now recognises that while many unions are affiliated to Labour, and the strong affinity between unions and the party is longstanding and important, none of the teaching unions is, or has been, affiliated, and the political independence of the union continues to be popular with members.

Last year, the non-affiliated PCS civil service union’s annual conference voted to review its political campaigning in the light of Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. Its conference passed a motion proposed by general secretary Mark Serwotka on behalf of the NEC.

This instructed the union to carry out a full review of its political campaigning and to bring any new proposals to this year’s conference, including the union’s relations with the Labour Party and the issue of affiliation.

A PCS spokesperson told Labour Research that in previous years, the debate has involved opposition to the union affiliating to Labour both from “civil service traditionalists” —  who argue that the civil service is politically neutral and therefore the union should also be neutral — and those in organisations to the left of Labour “who wouldn’t want to be tied to Labour”. But he said that the climate has since changed and that following a more “good-natured and comradely” debate this year, the position is pretty much settled.

“The debate is not so fractious and has moved away from a black-and-white affiliate or don’t affiliate,” he said.

“Conference agreed a motion to support Labour candidates within the bounds of existing policy, which stops short of affiliation but is still openly pro-Labour and close enough to the action without a formal tie. We have a Labour Party that we can openly support.

“We are doing everything we can to support Labour under Corbyn because of the types of policies the current leadership is developing. These pretty much mirror our priorities and policies over the last 10 years, particularly since 2010.”

This year, the debate has been more about general political strategy and the impact of political campaigning.

Key policy areas for the PCS include lifting the 1% cap on public sector pay, scrapping the Trade Union Act and restoring national bargaining over civil service pay and conditions.

“Unlike other public services, there is no national level bargaining, but instead 200 sets of negotiations over pay and conditions every year, which is time consuming and inefficient,” the spokesperson explained.

“The 1% pay cap means there are no genuine negotiations and the fragmented bargaining system has also lead to pay inequality, with people on the same grade doing the same job on sometimes wildly different pay, and pay inequality between women and men a particular issue. Corbyn committed to national pay bargaining in 2016 and the Labour Party and PCS are also in tune with regard to anti-austerity and anti-privatisation policies.”

The 2017 Labour manifesto set out that the next Labour government will end the public sector pay cap, repeal the Trade Union Act and roll out sectoral collective bargaining, for example.

The main area where PCS wants Labour Party policy to go further is social security, and it is developing its own policy and campaigns and working with Labour in this area.

The union has informal, and “semi-formal” links with members of the front bench and the leadership and is continuing to engage with the Labour Party on its policy review.

The spokesperson said that while social security is a major political and industrial area for the union, “there is not a huge amount” in this area in Labour’s manifesto. “The DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] is the biggest employer and most PCS members work in social security and tax. We will be pushing on this over the coming year.”

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