The 2018 NUJ Delegate meeting to be held in Southport on 20 – 22 April will debate a motion (104) from the Public Relations and Communications branch calling for a ballot of the members to set up a political fund, whilst reaffirming the union’s continued party political independence. The motion has attracted a debate on-line both on NUJ Facebook and in Tim Dawson’s President’s platform http://www.londonfreelance.org/fl/1804prez2.html?i=flindex&d=2018_04 (‘Say ‘no’ to handing NUJ funds to political parties’.) As the person responsible for drafting the motion, I thought I would share my reasons behind it.
1. What is it?
Essentially, it is a fund for campaigning on any issue that might be construed as ‘political’. Since 1913 trade unions wishing to be involved in activity that might be deemed ‘political’ had to ballot their members on the establishment of a ‘political fund’ to pay for it. In 1984 the Conservative government changed the law to make unions ballot every 10 years. Originally this could be a workplace ballot, now it must postal.
2. If we had one, would it mean the Union would be free to affiliate to a political party?
Although some unions have ‘affiliated’ political funds which they use to affiliate to a political party (usually Labour) the intention of the motion before the Delegate Meeting is to ballot our members on establishing a non-party or general political fund. The last paragraph reads: ‘Finally it (the DM) reaffirms the NUJ’s continued party political independence.’ And we would not be the only union to have a non-affiliated fund. Unions who have a non-party or general political fund include the PCS, NASUWT, NUT (now the National Education Union – successful ballot held September 2017) and the UCU who voted last week to maintain their fund with 90.3% in favour on a 20.9% poll.
3. So, if it isn’t about affiliating to a political party, why do we need a fund?
So that we can legally continue our political campaigning – especially during election times – when we need to continue defending and promoting our members’ interests around such issues as the future of public broadcasting, press regulation, copyright, data protection, freedom of information, media ownership law, employment and trade union rights. In order to promote our policies and debate with those seeking office during elections times we need a political fund to protect us from the risk of being taken to court. Without such a fund we are in danger of breaking the law.
4. If we had a general political fund, would we find the Union campaigning during an election (or at any other time) on behalf of a political party?
No, the motion reaffirms the NUJ’s continued party political independence. Election periods are an important time to build and strengthen our campaigns and we need to be free to continue these activities during these times to influence those standing for office regardless of their party affiliation.
5. If it’s just about campaigning on issues that political parties get involved in, haven’t we been doing that for years anyway? What’s changed?
The NUJ has a long and strong record of campaigning and lobbying government and politicians on a wide range of issues affecting our members. During election periods we need to be able to lobby and to provide candidates with information about of our policy concerns. We can analyse party manifestos, how they impact on our concerns but without telling our members who they should vote for or not to vote for.
6. What are the realistic dangers of not having a political fund?
Without such fund, much of our campaigning, especially at election times, could land us in court if a complaint was brought against us. The fund is an insurance: with it, we can guarantee that our voice will be heard all year and not just in Westminster but in the devolved institutions, too. Without it, at these most critical times, we must stay silent.
7. Haven’t we been here before – why are we revisiting this?
Yes we have. Following a decision of our Annual Delegate Meeting in 2003 to ballot the members on setting up a general political fund, they voted by a majority of 579 votes against the proposal with 47% in favour and 53% against. The turnout of 7,771 members represented 28.6% of our total membership.
Since then, we have experienced what it means to lack a general political fund. Our intervention in the last General Election was marginalised (as it was in the 2015 Election) because we feared that any intervention around policy issues at election times could be construed as trying to persuade people to vote for a political party or candidate or persuade them not to vote for a political party or candidate.
In April 2017 once the general election had been called and, in order to protect the union from any legal challenge, NUJ head office quite rightly issued an advisory note on what we could and could not do during the run up to the election on 8 June. Although not specifically mentioned in the advice, it was clear that even a simple exercise of organising template letters for our members to send to their local prospective candidates and publishing their replies alongside an analysis that compares them with existing NUJ policy – could count as encouraging people to support one party rather than another.
If we want our union to be free to have an independent, critical voice during election periods, we need a political fund.
8. I don’t want to contribute to a political fund – would I have to?
No, members have the legal right not to contribute to the political fund.