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Priti Patel MP

Priti Patel MP: Is it time to apply the Bribery Act to Labour's relationship with the unions?

Screen shot 2013-09-08 at 08.49.05Priti Patel is MP for Witham, and an elected Member of the Conservative Party Board, the 1922 Committee’s Executive and the Public Administration Select Committee

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is meeting this week for their 2013 Congress. As usual, we will hear union leaders and delegates reel off the same old dogmatic speeches demanding more public spending, higher taxes and an end to austerity. Their agenda and list of motions for debate offer nothing original. Sounding like a 50 year old broken record, Unite is demanding “mass industrial action to oppose the cuts”, the PCS wants “a co-ordinated programme of industrial action and civil disobedience”, and the RMT are pushing for a “general strike.” The fantasy of millions of workers refusing to work and losing money is an addiction that some just cannot kick.

Union barons who love the sound of their own voice will take to stage and erupt with emotion and passion as they call for workers to rise up against the Government and crush capitalism. They will turn a blind eye to the 1.3 million new jobs in the private sector in favour of demands for more equalities officers, NHS managers and other wasteful non-jobs in the public sector.

There are also motions opposing the Government’s much needed health, education and welfare reforms as well as demands for an end to Royal Mail privatisation and for the railways to be re-nationalised. The vested interests of individual trade unions are also clear for all to see. The Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, for example, believe that the nation’s economic, health and poverty problems can be addressed by more spending on podiatrists, while Equity want more money ploughed into local theatres. In addition, we will hear claims from union leaders about companies and the wealthy dodging taxes. But when the PCS union’s own financial report discloses that they hold equities in Vodafone while their leader, Mark Serwotka, hypocritically  backs the UK Uncut anti-Vodafone protests, and the GMB’s tax affairs are being looked into by HMRC, their arguments on tax-dodging have no credibility.

Without doubt, this week we will be entertained with a vision for this country which will leave Britain transformed not into the socialist/communist utopia they dream of, but a bankrupt and barren country, crippled by high taxes and excessive public spending. Fortunately, few will take the TUC seriously and the halving of trade union membership numbers since the late 1970s is a testament to the way that many unions and their leaderships have become detached from the real world and the workforce.

But behind all of the rhetoric on cuts, austerity and nationalisation, the real story to look out for will be the future of the relationship between the Labour Party and their trade union paymasters. Last week the GMB, Labour’s third biggest donor, announced it was cutting £1 million in funding to the Labour Party by reducing its current levels of affiliation from 420,000 to 50,000 in 2014. Although this is a sizeable amount of money, the move should not be viewed as a game-changer in the relationship between Labour and the unions. Nor should it be viewed as the GMB weakening its influence on Labour Party decision-making and candidate selections.

Last week’s decision was made by the GMB’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) and although there has been much fanfare with this event, they could easily reverse it. Earlier this year, the CEC increased the affiliation number from 400,000 to 420,000. The ‘private and confidential’ minutes of their February meeting stated that the “General Secretary...proposed that this affiliation number be increased to 420,000 which would better reflect real membership figures.” Should the Labour Party adopt more GMB-friendly policies, the affiliation level could rise again.

What’s more, the decision will not prevent the GMB from making donations to the Labour Party and it will not stop them from using GMB money to influence Labour MPs and candidates. A central tenant of the GMB’s political strategy is to use its financial leverage to influence individual Labour politicians and constituency parties. This strategy boasts of the introduction of:

 “...annual evaluations of the work of those MP’s whose constituency received financial or organisations support from GMB. We have ended our relationship with some and strengthened it with others...we want to provide support to those who share our values politically and this should be done at the expense of those who seek our financial and organisational support yet fail to grasp the need for social justice in any context other than words in a game of scrabble.”

It is clear from this that regardless of the GMB’s affiliation level with Labour, they will still use their financial clout to threaten and bully Labour MPs they sponsor to do as they command. It is astonishing that for so long the GMB’s efforts, along with other unions, to exert control on individual politicians through what could be described as a combination of bribes and blackmail has not been prohibited by the authorities. In a report I produced two years ago I called for the links between trade unions and the Labour Party to be considered within the context of the Bribery Act, and feel that this is something that the Government should give serious consideration to doing. The last Labour Government dropped policies to part-privatise Royal Mail after unions threatened to cut off their funding and also introduced union-friendly policies through the Warwick Agreement in exchange for donations. Never again should a Government have its tail wagged by the organisations whose donations the governing party’s MPs depend upon.

Aside from holding Labour MPs to account through their financial muscle, along with the Unite union, the GMB is determined to stitch-up parliamentary candidate selections. ‘Private and confidential’ minutes from the CEC’s April meeting state that: “GMB was looking at MPs who were not standing in the 2015 General Election and were targeting an increase of GMB membership in those CLP’s in order to influence who is selected as candidates.” What’s more, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has reportedly been favourable to pro-union candidates winning selections.

When a trade union candidate was not selected or shortlisted for the Rotherham by-election, ‘private and confidential’ minutes from the GMB’s CEC meeting of 4 December 2012 reveal that the NEC were going to review arrangements as they were unhappy with the process which lead to this outcome. They state:

“The NEC debated at length the selection process for the Rotherham by-election. The NEC were unhappy with the process which had a selection panel with a majority of MP’s with no CLP representation. Consequently no Trade Union candidate was short listed, even though all TULO [Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation] affiliates had backed the same person. The NEC is to review the arrangements for by-election short listing and a more evenly balanced selection panel must be guaranteed in the future.”

Despite the Falkirk whitewash, Ed Miliband did claim that there were “serious issues” with the Falkirk selection and declared that “all of our parliamentary candidates must be and will be selected in a fair and transparent way”, Labour cannot hide from the fact that they are complicit in the rigging of seats. Come the next General Election, whatever reforms Ed MIliband talks about introducing, Labour will remain dependent on the trade unions for money, unions will still select their candidates and unions will still determine Labour Party policy.


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