Chris Stephens: Trade union value in SNP future

Nicola Sturgeon and Stewart Hosie MP at SNP's annual conference. Picture: Getty

Nicola Sturgeon and Stewart Hosie MP at SNP's annual conference. Picture: Getty

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THE SNP’s surge in membership is a valuable resource, especially the trade union activists who are not prepared to accept the status quo, writes Chris Stephens.

First, a confession. Of all the post-referendum outcomes we envisaged (whether Yes or No), an SNP membership surge of epic proportions wasn’t one of them.

The SNP Trade Union Group membership now stands at 12,000-plus, a rapid rise from a steadily growing base of just over 1,000. It’s arguable that this SNP affiliate is now the second biggest political organisation in Scotland, depending on whether the “official” Scottish Labour Party membership figures are regarded as fact or fiction.

Like many longstanding party activists, I find myself happily struggling to process the new reality of belonging to a party of over 84,000 members. To all those who believed the days of mass memberships of political organisations were over and parties should aim for collecting “supporters” in the American style, the rush to join parties who supported a Yes vote must be truly bewildering.

I’ll never forget 18 September, campaigning in Pollok and hearing a postie and long-term member of the CWU declaring he wouldn’t be walking to the polling station to vote Yes – he’d be running. Like many people we met in the campaign, he was disappointed in the result, but is now a party member.

This presents us with challenges such as how to keep the new members active and interested. My top tip to colleagues – don’t subject them to traditional branch meetings; you stand the risk of losing them by the matters arising stage of the agenda. That’s why Nicola Sturgeon’s tour is as much about listening to members and letting them know they have a major opportunity to influence Scottish politics and make a positive contribution in shaping the next chapters of Scotland’s story.

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It’s very clear in speaking to those new members in the Trade Union Group that they come from a traditional Labour movement background, and have chosen the SNP as their political home. We need to find out what their expectations and hopes for the future are and will contact every single one to survey their views.

Many rank and file trade union members and activists who voted Yes in September aren’t willing to accept the status quo and see SNP membership as their road to campaign for a better future. They want an end to austerity and pay freezes that drive workmates to food banks.They believe they’ve been left behind by other parties who aren’t prepared to stand up for better employment rights, proper health and safety legislation, and defend the safety net of social security for all.

It is important to point out that we are not a trade union, but a network of trade union members and activists across the wide variety of unions active in Scotland. We serve as a major conduit between trade unions and the party, which is complemented by back-bench SNP MSPs meeting trade unions on a regular basis to address issues.

We have advised SNP members in the past on the best trade union for their industry, and ensured that the SNP were the first parliamentary group to recognise their staff trade union in the Scottish Parliament.

We play a full and active part in the SNP’s policy-making, with delegates to the SNP’s National Council, National Conference, and former Scottish FBU president and current NUJ member John Docherty represents us on the National Executive. We recognise each trade union’s democratic structure, and encourage our members to be active and work with non-SNP members to argue the case for further powers for Holyrood and put the case for independence.

However, we are very clear that the focus of the group is to ensure that workplace issues and rights are part of SNP decision-making and policy, not the other way round. Our members’ main reason for joining is the complaint that historically the focus of some unions is to put the interests of the Labour Party first and foremost, sometimes to the detriment of representing members’ views.

On that basis, we are active in advising members on how to pull out of the affiliated funds that bankroll Labour. It sometimes comes as a shock to people to realise they’re funding the very party which they feel has abandoned the values it was founded on. Recent research by Unite which found that less than 15 per cent of its members would actively sign up to an affiliated fund for Labour bears this out. We support normal, non-party affiliated funds, for example the Fire Brigades Union, who use their funds to sponsor candidates who support their policies, with no party bias in mind. SNP and Labour candidates alike have received that support.

We believe that membership of a trade union is more important than ever before, with the gap between rich and poor widening daily, when collective bargaining is only being done on behalf of 23 per cent of Scotland’s workers, when so many people feel isolated and at the mercy of management and boardroom decisions, a strong voice for fairness in the workplace matters.

We will organise our new resources to create campaigning units and structures to play a vital part in communities supporting victims of austerity and so-called welfare reforms, arguing that a better way of running the economy is possible. I’m acutely conscious of the trust that working people are placing in the SNP to articulate and deliver the change their families and communities urgently need. We will work with those who share this vision because we believe there was a message sent on 18 September – something’s got to change.

• Chris Stephens is Secretary of the SNP Trade Union Group and current member of the SNP National Executive Committee.

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