Should the NUJ have a political fund?

THE ARGUMENTS for and against the proposal for the NUJ to set up a political fund were given a full airing at a public meeting co-hosted by the LFB and six other London branches on 12 February, ahead of the ballot of the membership to be held later in the month.

Setting out the case for a political fund, NUJ National Executive Committee member Pete Murray said having a fund was all about giving members a bigger campaigning voice. Murray, who works for the BBC in Scotland, said the Hutton report had demonstrated the need for wider campaigning to defend public service broadcasting, to protect whistleblowers and to improve the law itself: "Suddenly basic workplace matters can become big, big issues. The NUJ has had to take a very strong position on the Hutton report, and we are going to need to campaign to keep the licence fee and to secure the future of public service broadcasting." Having a political fund would assist in that battle, he said.

The fund was not about party-political campaigning, Murray said, adding: "We want to mount high-profile campaigns to challenge politicians, not join their parties. For example I am a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and I can tell you that the SSP doesn't want any of the NUJ's money."

Also speaking in favour, Martin Cloake, chair of Central London branch, admitted to being suspicious of the proposal at first, but said that this was a product of a law [requiring unions to have separate political funds] that engendered suspicion. "The law encourages people to make a link between 'political' and 'party-political'," he said, "but anyone who knows this union's members knows we would never vote to affiliate to a political party."

However, Cloake argued that in a changing world, and one in which the law was making increasing encroachments into the world of journalism, it made sense for the union to protect itself with a political fund. "What's political?" he continued. "Employment rights are, so is copyright, pension law and the retention of the BBC. All could be judged 'political' and it will be judges who decide on this."

He also pointed out that civil servants were members of a union with a political fund while still being able to carry out their jobs in an impartial manner, and was worried about the emergence, in the "no" camp, "of an old idea that unions should have a narrow focus just on pay and conditions and soft toilet roll in the toilets. We cannot artificially divide these issues from some supposed 'other world' of politics. If the NUJ is to keep building on the progress it's made, we need a yes vote".

Opening the case for the "no" campaigners, Chris Wheal of London Magazine branch argued that this was not a "left v right" issue, but one of protecting the union's independence. "This has only come about because of anti-trade union legislation requiring unions to jump through hoops that no other democratic body has to do," he said. "The NUJ can campaign for all these laws to be abolished without having a political fund."

Wheal said that the law requiring unions to have political funds (Section 72 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations [consolidation] Act 1992) only related to activity around party politics. "Unless you actually want the NUJ to support a political party or to take party political sides, vote against it," he said, adding that the political fund's proposers had only ruled out affiliation to parties, not campaigning for, or funding, them.

He also criticised the union for presenting only the "yes" side of the argument in its literature. Last year's Annual Delegate Meeting did not call for a campaign for a yes vote, he said, it simply called for a ballot to be held. He argued that the leadership had exaggerated the threat of a legal challenge, when no union had fallen foul of these laws since1987. "We have suddenly been told, with no evidence, that an invisible threat that has not materialised for 20 years can now launch an attack on our campaigning within 45 minutes," he said.

The second "anti" speaker, NEC member and NUJ Ethics Council chair Chris Frost said that having a political fund could make members' jobs more difficult. "We do not want a professional millstone hanging around our necks when we are going to try and interview people."

Frost also expressed doubts that the fund would generate substantial additional funds for campaigning. "As members in Britain can decide whether to pay into the fund, some will vote to opt out. I want to know what we are going to fund with the 78,000 I estimate this will generate." He argued that if members wanted more funds for campaigning, it would make more sense to vote for a subscriptions increase.

Now it's over to the members...

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