Tom Quelch

The Trade Unions and the Political Levy

(June 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 51, 20 June 1922, p. 377.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2019). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The British Labour Party is a loose federation of trade unions, Trade Councils, local Labour Parties, and such Socialist organisations as the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society. The question of the affiliation of the Communist Party is a matter for consideration at the forthcoming Labour Party Conference to be held this month in Edinburgh.

The finances of the Labour Party are made up of affiliation fees from its constituent organisations and contributions and donations from individual members. As within the last ten years the Labour Party has increased in influence and power, it has attracted to it quite a large number of ambitious politicians of the middle-classes – lawyers, doctors, ex-army officers, etc. – and many of these, possessing wealth, make considerable money contributions to the support of the Party. But the chief strength of the Labour Party, both from the point of view of members and of finance, is drawn from the trade union organisations.

When the Labour Party was called into being, over a quarter of a century ago, by the Trades Union Congress, the trade unions decided to levy their members for political purposes.

This was put into effect. Quite large sums of money were contributed by the big unions into the Labour Party exchequer, then between 1909 and 1913, the unions, on account of the Osborne judgment, were not permitted to make a levy on their members. The excuse for this judgment was that – so the capitalist forces in the country claimed – there were many men in the trade unions who were, politically, not in agreement with the policy of the Labour Party, and were supporters of either the Liberal or Tory parties. The Osborne judgment decided that if men were in agreement with the Labour Party they could individually make voluntary contributions, but that the unions, as such, had no right to impose a levy on all their members.

A year after the Osborne judgment, the Trade Union Act was passed, owing to the volume of pressure brought to bear on the Government by the industrial organisations, and the unions were once again empowered to raise funds for Labour Party purposes.

Now, just recently, with the introduction by private members in the House of Commons of a Bill to amend the Trade Union Act of 1913, the continuous attempt of the reactionary capitalist interests opposed to the trade union movement to cripple its political activities and to destroy its unity enters upon a new phase.

The Bill is really an attempt to throw the unions back into the confusion occasioned by the Osborne judgment. Its purpose is to make it impossible for them to support the Labour Party financially by imposing a levy on their members. Pretending to safeguard the interests of the individual trade unionist, the Bill requires every trade union which desires to raise a fund for political purposes to take a ballot of its members. In this ballot at least 50 per cent of the members must vote to make the result valid, and a majority of at least 20 per cent must be recorded in favour of the political levy to enable the union to impose it. When the ballot has been taken those members of the union who wish to contribute to the political fund must intimate in writing their intention to do so, and renew this intimation every year.

In view of the present crisis in British trade unionism – which has recently suffered a decrease of no less than 20 per cent of its membership – and the general indifference of the workers concerning all matters relating to their industrial organisations, the difficulties of securing a successful ballot are many and various, and the further conditions proposed by the Bill make the possibility of support for the Labour Party from the trade unions very questionable. Nor is this all We are on the eve, in this country, of a General election. And the measure is in reality a most sinister move to cripple the Labour Party, and to prevent it securing that support at the election which it would otherwise obtain.

Last updated on 27 December 2019