1960s >> 1968 >> no-766-june-1968

The Parasites

Have you ever wondered where organisations like the British Council for Peace in Vietnam and the Movement for Colonial Freedom get their money from? A member explains how their supporters in his union branch use dubious means to help:

Before the First World War, Labour Party leaders hit upon a convenient way of financing their political careers: they paid themselves salaries out of union funds. Unfortunately for them, a railwayman’s branch secretary called Osborne, who as a Liberal objected to financing Labour MP’s, took them to court and won. The courts ruled that unions could only spend their funds on industrial matters. But the 1913 Trade Union Act allowed the unions to set up separate political funds, providing they gave their members the chance to opt out. This contracting-out of the political levy lasted till 1927 when the Tories, after the General Strike, changed it to contracting-in. Labour changed it back again in 1946.

Many, but certainly not all, unions have political funds which they use mainly to affiliate to the Labour Party and to sponsor their own Labour candidates. Members of the Socialist Party naturally contract out of this levy. However, the local branches of some unions use money from the general, as opposed to the political, fund to finance obviously political organisations. This is easy where the branch is based on a geographical district rather than the place of work. Only a few members usually turn up and it is they who decide policy and how the funds are spent.

A case in point is a white collar union whose members work in scattered offices in the centre of London. Average attendance at the monthly meetings of this 300-strong branch is less than 20, and some of these are people who have retained their membership for political reasons as they are no longer employed, at least not in offices covered by the branch. Although none of the officers are members of the so-called Communist Party (the rule-book in fact discriminates against them) a hard-core of regular attenders are. It is easy for them to vote money to the various organisations they fancy. For instance, in one month last year they voted, from the general fund, £5 to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, 25s. to the Movement for Colonial Freedom, £2 subscription to Pensioners’ Voice and 10s to Voice of the Unions. At the next meeting they bought 8s. worth of MCF raffle tickets and donated £5 to the British Council for Peace in Vietnam, allegedly for an ambulance. Now the 1913 Act defines political expenditure, apart from election work, as money spent “on the holding of political meetings of any kind, or on the distribution of political literature or political documents of any kind”. Since they money they donate to AA, MCF or BCPV will obviously be used to help pay for meetings and leaflets this branch would seem to be coming very near to breaking the law. It is significant that some other unions, SOGAT at the national level for instance, contribute to the British Council for Peace in Vietnam and to Amnesty in Spain from their political fund. They take more care. But there is a reason why the Communists prefer to use the general to the political fund. Contributions to the political are very low (1d. a week in this union, of which half goes to the branch). At branch level, this money is used to affiliate to local Labour parties, so that the financing of “leftwing” groups on the scale practised just could not be sustained; it would break the political fund. One month, and this admittedly is exceptional, out of a total expenditure of over £46 more than £20 was spent on political donations; nothing was spent from the political fund, the balance of which was about £11.

What happens, then, is that a few hundred clerical workers contribute to the local branch funds believing it is going to be used for industrial purposes: to maintain an organisation to press for better wages and working conditions. Whereas in fact a handful of regular attenders use much of these contributions to finance “left-wing” groups. In a sense, this is the members’ own fault. It is only because they take little or no interest in union affairs that a left-wing clique, generally Communists, can take them for a ride. But there is another aspect: the cynical behaviour of the left-wingers who loudly shout about morality but use dubious means to get money.

This whole trick is repeated up and down the country and provides a considerable part of the funds of the left wing organisations mentioned.