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Collectivism or Individualism? Pete Firmin argues unions are an organic part of the Labour Party, not some outdated add on.

“Solidarity – collectivism – is central to the labour movement. The move to All Members Meetings reduces us to individuals.”

Pete Firmin

By Pete Firmin, CWU and Hampstead & Kilburn CLP

Since Party conference in 2017 made it easier to move from delegate General Committees (GCs) to All Members Meetings (AMMs) for Constituency Labour Parties, there have been several attempts to do this.

Socialists should be resisting this. The organised working class is central to the fight for socialism and any loosening of the link between the Party and the unions makes that fight more difficult.

That link to the organised working class is, to a large part, responsible for the fact that the Labour Party has not disappeared like many social democratic parties which had no such link to prevent them going over totally to neo-liberalism; such as PASOK in Greece and the SP in France.

Solidarity – collectivism – is central to the labour movement. The move to AMMs reduces us to individuals.

A delegate structure ensures the trade union-party link is real locally. Local union branches can meet and decide policy and elect delegates through democratic debate. Delegates then represent them in CLPs. Local activists have an input which they may not have regionally or nationally.

Trade Unions are autonomous organisations with their own structures and rule books, not branches of the Party. Unions decide collectively – nationally – whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. That means the union affiliates, it does not mean every member of that union is a Party member, but the union has the right to send representatives to every level of the Party – local, regional and national. It was through such collective decision-making that unions decided to found the Labour Party. Saying all Party members are union members, as some stress, does not address the issue of union collective decision-making, nor the fact that union delegates are representing members who have voted for them to be delegates but are not necessarily themselves Party members. AMMs weaken the input of the unions into the Party. If, for instance, there are 10 union delegates in a GC of 100 delegates, they represent 10% of votes. But if attendance at AMMs averages 200, that drops to 5%.

A delegate structure ensures the trade union-party link is real locally. Local union branches can meet and decide policy and elect delegates through democratic debate. Delegates then represent them in CLPs. Local activists have an input which they may not have regionally or nationally.

The importance of that union input can be easily illustrated – the Blair government wanted to privatise Royal Mail. It was only the campaign of the CWU, both inside and outside the Party, that stopped it.

Many on the Left of the Party see AMMs as a way of loosening the grip of the right on their CLP. Yet people should be careful what they wish for. The Blairite “modernisers” did most to reduce the influence of the unions in the Party. They saw the link with the unions as a hindrance to the Party making its peace with capitalism. The Tories have always pushed to keep the unions out of politics.

Myths abound, such as that GCs deny members a right to vote. They don’t. We all have a right to vote in our branch meetings. No-one suggests we should all be able to turn up at Party conference and vote. The CLP sends delegates on our behalf. The same goes for regional conferences. So, a delegate structure is accepted, just not at CLP level.

There are plenty of examples of undemocratic manipulation of both AMMs and GCs. The only protection against undemocratic practice is organisation and vigilance. One problem with AMMs is that you cannot be sure who will turn up from one meeting to the next, with the result that more power can pass to the executive, the reverse of what is being claimed.

AMMs, being further away, favour those with more time, cars and money. Party branch delegations must be at least 50% women. Moving to AMMs increases the chances of male domination of CLPs.

Members around the country report that, with the introduction of AMMs, attendance at branch meetings falls. Branch meetings should be where local campaigns are planned, and councillors questioned and held to account. That can’t happen properly at CLP level, whether GC or AMM, but moving to AMMs makes it less likely since many members would see participation in branch meetings as less important. 

Venues are often barely big enough to accommodate GC meetings. Bigger venues would be needed for AMMs, with all the problems of availability and increased costs.

Of course, union involvement is not always democratic. We need to democratise our unions just as we need to democratise the Party and socialist societies. But we won’t help that by taking a decision which says the unions are not important in the Party.

Unions are an organic part of the Party, not some outdated add on. With employers attempting to attack jobs and terms and conditions under cover of the pandemic, the left needs to strengthen ties with unions, not push them away.

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