Why members should vote ‘NO’ to an NUJ political fund

All of the NUJ's activities are political. But the NUJ has absolutely no need of a political fund.

Please vote. Please consider voting "No" when the ballot papers arrive this month. For this union's equilibrium, integrity and ability to support its members in difficult, even dangerous, political situations, it is vital that this fund does not come into being.

The crux is that, under the Conservatives' Trades Union and Labour Relations Act, 1992, unions are compelled to have political funds only if they wish to i) join a political party, or ii) in some other way give money to a party or election candidate, or iii) otherwise spend money on a party, including campaigning for or against any political party or candidate in an election (see details below quoted from the trade union Certification Office's website www.certoffice.org/guidance/pdf/politicalFund.pdf).

These are all things the NUJ's members have never wished to do, and for very good reasons. The NUJ has a unique position among British and Irish trade unions simply because many of our members in all media, staff and freelance, report party politics. How they do this - striving for objectivity or rooting for their favourites - is between them and their editors. That's the press freedom we champion. It's of fundamental value to these politically frontline members that the union does not queer their pitch by declaring a preference and deploying members' money for or against any party.

The NEC's only undertaking in this area is not to use a political fund to affiliate to the Labour Party. Which is good, if a limited limitation. However, some pro-funders have been advocating its use to oppose BNP election candidates.

Well, it's conceivable that every single NUJ member would personally denounce the BNP. This, though, is a self-satisfaction the union as a body should deny itself. Our key role in upholding journalistic freedom would be undermined by taking an official stand against any party.

To get to the heart of this matter it's helpful to look beyond the narrow specifics of the BNP argument and consider the position of our members in Northern Ireland. There the union's resolute neutrality has played an indispensable role in preserving both press freedom and the lives of journalists. If it's both appropriate and life-or-death necessary for us not to take party-political sides when the chips are really down, then that should remain our guiding principle.

Following the NEC's decision to campaign for a "yes" vote - rather than foster debate - the Journalist published a spread proffering their side of the argument only.

One article stated that, legally, trade unions must have a political fund "if they want to spend money campaigning on issues that have a political content". But the Certification Officer's summary of the law shows that this is utterly wrong - a confusion of the general meaning of "political" and the word's strictly "party-political" meaning in the 1992 Act.

Equally unfounded was the facing article's implication that the future of the union's "top 10" campaigns on core issues such as workplace rights, pensions, protecting the BBC, the right to report and copyright depends on the establishment of a political fund. Without such a fund, the union always has and always will be able to spend money on these issues - so long as it doesn't give any to political parties or politicians to enlist their support.

The NEC also argues that, if we carry on campaigning without a fund, we risk complaints being brought against us under the 1992 Act.

The emotional reaction is to say that the NUJ hasn't made a habit of running scared from Tory anti-union laws - especially when, in five Conservative years and seven Labour, no trade union actually has been "charged" under that Act. Further, the only actual case the political fund worriers ever refer to was brought against NALGO in 1987 (under the Trade Union Act, 1913, since consolidated into the 1992 Act). Without a fund, during an election NALGO had financed a vote-for-public-services poster campaign in marginal seats; the court decreed this amounted to saying, "Don't vote Tory". Which was rough, but surely not something to knot our knickers 17 years later.

Really, the risk of prosecution seems remote - a feeling supported by the fact that only about half of the TUC's 73 unions have political funds (around 20 of them have affiliated to the Labour Party).

In sum, the absence of a political fund will not prevent us doing anything we want to do. The creation of a political fund would not enable us to do anything that we do want to do, and spending it to support or oppose any politician or party could undermine some our most important work and endanger vulnerable members.

It's a bad idea.

The law

The Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers' Associations guidance quotes the relevant excerpt from the law on political funds, stating that such bodies require them in order to legally spend money ...

(a) on any contribution to the funds of, or on the payment of expenses incurred directly or indirectly by, a political party;

(b) on the provision of any service or property for use by or on behalf of any political party;

(c) in connection with the registration of electors, the candidature of any person, the selection of any candidate or the holding of any ballot by the union in connection with any election to a political office;

(d) on the maintenance of any holder of a political office;

(e) on the holding of any conference or meeting by or on behalf of a political party or of any other meeting the main purpose of which is the transaction of business in connection with a political party;

(f) on the production, publication or distribution of any literature, document, film, sound recording or advertisement the main purpose of which is to persuade people to vote for a political party or candidate or to persuade them not to vote for a political party or candidate."

Last modified: 2 February 2004 - © 2004 contributors
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