That was my response on seeing what Unison’s Dave Prentis told his conference yesterday, at which he effectively said that a number of Labour MPs risk losing union funding to their constituencies. “No more blank cheques”, says Unison’s press release. It doesn’t get much more blunt than that.
I wasn’t the only one. Sources tell me that very few people knew of the general secretary’s remarks before he made them. And the remarks themselves are both astonishing and important.
Astonishing because Unison has shown itself until now to be a diehard supporter of the Labour Party and the Labour Government (much though it criticises policies such as the Private Finance Initiative). It was simply not done to mention the money – millions of pounds – it pays to Labour Party HQ, MPs through their constituencies and for campaigning support, every year. Cash for policies was never raised – partly because it is a stick the Conservatives used to beat Labour with, accusing it of being under the thumb of unions. Until now.
Important because it’s a step change in how Britain’s biggest public sector union, and its second biggest union overall, works. Or as a senior Unison officer said: “The genie’s out of the bottle”. Other Labour-supporting unions such as the CWU get the chance to debate their political funding at their annual conference. Not Unison: the obscure Rule J (I’ll spare you the details) means that the topic is off-limits.
Constituency funds are managed by regional committees and, as late as last week, I was being told that the situation would remain thus. But the rules seem to have been, erm, worked around. I can reveal there was an emergency meeting of Unison’s national Labour Link Committee last night, described to me as a “formality”. Prentis has spoken. As an activist put it: “The old settlement of Unison Labour Link being an autnomous part of the union is gone.”
Labour Party staff ought to be sweating. This is another snapping of threads in the ropes holding Labour’s trade union link together. And the fact nobody saw it coming makes it all the more powerful.
P.S. Cynics may suggest this is why the list of Unison Labour MPs disappeared from Unison’s website a couple of weeks ago.