Opinion Former Article

BFAWU: "If the unions really bankroll Labour, we’re getting a pretty poor return on our investment"

by Ian Hodson, National President, Bakers’, Food & Allied Workers Union

It’s now clear that the real issue of corruption in politics is the influence of lobbyists, who have been found paying huge amounts of money to political parties. It has been suggested that these ‘donations’ have helped to influence and shape government policy.

The coalition’s U-turns with regard to the plain packaging of cigarettes and minimum alcohol pricing would appear to provide clear proof of this. In addition, we have obvious conflicts of interest with regard to government advisors and their connections to certain payday loan companies, not to mention the connections that government ministers have to private health organisations and other vultures, waiting in the wings to take the profitable parts of  our NHS, which the government is hell bent on selling off.

Taking all of this into account, it seems strange that the discussions have been conveniently steered away from those links, and have instead focused on Trade Union funding within the Labour Party; monies which not only enable the policies of working people to enter the wider political arena, but also help provide a system whereby working people can be encouraged to become MPs, thus making the House of Commons more balanced and representative.

Ordinary people feel a total disconnect from the political system. They feel ignored and devalued with a mindset that all political parties are the same. The general consensus among a large percentage of people is that “it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the government always gets in”. They face issues such as zero hour contracts, extortionate rents and the skyrocketing cost of food and utilities on a daily basis and feel that their concerns are simply dismissed by the political classes who have no idea, empathy or understanding of what their lives are like.

It would appear that in today's Britain, we have only a choice of similar policies from similar parties who can only be distinguished by the colour of their ties. Anyone who thinks other than what is regarded as the ‘right agenda’ is attacked for being some sort of ‘loony leftie’. If you belong to a trade union, whose memberships are made up of ordinary, hard-working people who want to ‘get on’, you are labelled as a militant; spoiling for a fight and engaged in the ‘politics of envy’. If you are a Trade Union Official, elected by members and paid to represent their rights, hopes and aspirations, you are described by both the media and politicians as a tyrant, a baron or a member of the ‘awkward squad’.

There really is a need to explode the myths and put misperceptions where they belong. Trade Union Officials are elected democratically and Union policies are determined by members via Annual Conferences and Congresses, after heavy and often heated debate. Compare this model with that of the current government, whereby we have an unelected body of wealthy individuals, laden with conflicts of interest running the country and forcing through policies made up in a closed room that not one member of the electorate has had an opportunity to vote on. If that wasn’t enough, the last election was influenced by an individual who poured £50,000 into marginal seats to influence the vote. The person providing this financial clout wasn’t even a British taxpayer. Despite all of this, we are not discussing the failure of that system. We are forced to discuss Len McCluskey instead.

It's time we had balance both in the media and in the House of Commons. Where are the Newsnight ‘specials’ on the links between health companies and Tory grandees? Where are the front page headlines about government policy being decided by wealthy donors? Time and again, the only headlines pouring out of TVs and newspapers are how working people and Trade Unions are influencing the Labour Party and how we should all be appalled at this scandal. It begs the question: why has Ed Milliband fallen for the Tory smear campaign? The simple answer is that he wants to be considered as standing up against vested interest groups as he did with the newspapers, unlike David Cameron who has stood up for the press barons for party political gain.

The issue of funding is potentially a crisis of democracy. It looks like we will eventually be faced with a future where the three main political parties are funded by very rich individuals who as we see with the Tories, tend to expect some kind of payback. Their requests and deals are made at cosy dinners, lavish social functions or ‘fund raisers’ and no-one bats an eyelid. Look at the recent interview with David Cameron on the Marr show. When quizzed about his new friend and confidante Lynton Crosby, who works on behalf of tobacconists, brewers and private health care groups he gave no satisfactory answers; only the odd curt response and the whole thing was kicked into the long grass. I certainly don't remember the press barons making a huge noise about the lack of transparency on display there. In stark contrast, name one thing that the Labour movement has achieved without having to fight for it by way of direct action? Can you name one piece of anti-union legislation that the last Labour government repealed in thirteen years of power? I’m still yet to see one current Labour Party policy that directly benefits the Trade Union Movement. Considering that Unions are supposedly bankrolling Labour and its leadership is in our pockets, I’d say we’re getting a pretty poor return on our investment!

Whose purpose does it serve to have working people disconnected and unrepresented? The Labour Party was formed because there was no voice for working folk and soon we will have come full circle with ordinary people being totally unrepresented. That's why this a potential crisis for democracy; with the potentially massive political gaping hole waiting to be filled by those who want the blame for the crisis of capitalism to fall on immigrants, the unemployed, those on benefits and the disabled with deliberately misleading and disingenuous statistics and figures being rolled out totally unchallenged. Instead of accepting this misrepresentation, the blame should fall solely on those who created the mess we’re in: bankers, capitalists and politicians. Then, we should deal with the housing crisis by building more affordable housing, ending welfare dependency in a fair and constructive manner and committing to full employment and wages that people can live comfortably on. Curiously, these are aims that the Trade Union Movement were championing, long before we became known as the ‘enemy within’.

The Trade Union Movement has always sought to get Britain working whilst helping to create, protect and safeguard jobs in addition to improving terms and conditions. It fights against wasteful privatisation and tax dodging, whilst promoting social equality. Compare this to the Tory agenda of profiteering and wealth protection for those at the top; creating an army of unemployed people to force down pay whilst demonising the vulnerable, setting people against one another and underpinning the whole twisted ideology with a culture of fear, hatred and selfishness. So, when we have the debate about the Union influence within the Labour Party, let’s remember that when Unions last played a real and major role in society on a national level, our country created the NHS, committed to full employment and a council house building programme. Through the influence of ordinary working people, children where given opportunities to go into education with no cost and work attracted pay. Unfortunately, it is now an aspiration to have a job that comes with pay.

While Ed Miliband floats around the country playing the role of a man with integrity, it’s worth noting that despite ‘marching for the alternative’ a few years ago with the people he claims to represent, he turned his back on public sector workers and those on ‘Workfare’, whilst allowing changes to employment law to go through virtually unchallenged, allowing the coalition to force through it’s anti-worker agenda. I worry that unless the concerns of ordinary, working people are properly addressed within the political arena by a party that fully supports their aims and aspirations, the real issues of poverty, division and disconnect will mean the people of the United Kingdom suffer and the growing culture of greed and apathy will lead to politics becoming more distant and more irrelevant

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