Train drivers’ union ASLEF could cut ties with Labour at upcoming conference

Sienna Rodgers

It is HeartUnions week, when the labour movement shouts about its work and promotes trade union membership. The Labour Party is marking the occasion by again championing its ‘new deal for working people’. But another union may be set to disaffiliate from the party, just months after the Bakers’ union did so during Labour conference in September.

LabourList can confirm that a motion is going to ASLEF’s conference – its annual assembly of delegates, known as AAD – which will propose that the union disaffiliates from Labour. From May 16th, 80 delegates from around 170 branches will come together in Bournemouth and consider the motion. The outcome is very uncertain, with key people in ASLEF expecting a narrow result – and they believe there is a real risk that the proposal to disaffiliate could pass.

There has been frustration in ASLEF that Keir Starmer only met general secretary Mick Whelan in a one-to-one for the first time this month, almost two years after first becoming Labour leader. While the pandemic made meetings difficult and Whelan is not considered Starmer’s biggest fan, union sources say time should have been made for that meeting before – especially as Whelan is also chair of TULO (the Trade Union Liaison Organisation, now called Labour Unions). There is concern that “Labour only seem to want us when it’s time to pony up for affiliation fees or fight an election”, one source said.

The idea of cutting ASLEF’s formal link to Labour has been discussed before. At ASLEF’s virtual conference last year, a motion to stay affiliated to the party was carried by 55 votes to 25. “A couple of speakers have said they’re uncomfortable, unhappy, and disappointed with the direction of the party. I’d guess a majority here at conference feel like that,” train driver Lucio Buffone said at the time. But he was ultimately successful in making the case for ‘stay and fight’. “Affiliation is the high speed line to power and influence in the party,” he argued.

Similarly, the argument for affiliation this time is expected to stress that, under first-past-the-post, ASLEF must be able to influence the policies of a future Labour government. And while the union could give money to individual Labour MPs, this would be more complicated – and it might mean continuing to donate but without any influence. Those in favour of close ties with Labour face multi-faceted opposition in ASLEF, however.

The coalition for disaffiliation includes: some of those on the very left of Labour; those who would like to see the union fund the SNP or the Greens in Scotland instead; those who do not believe ASLEF should be particularly political; and those ordinary members who are simply not progressive and vote Tory or UKIP. It is also suggested that some proponents of disaffiliation are close to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) or to George Galloway.

The executive committee of ASLEF, which does not include the general secretary, is estimated by some to be 5-3 in favour of disaffiliation. This is a disadvantage at the conference in May, as EC members can intervene in the debate as many times as they wish. Although the ‘top table’ did not get its way in 2021, with delegates choosing to support both electoral reform and closer ties with Labour, the conference this year will not be online and will have a different delegation. And if a simple majority of the chosen delegates votes for disaffiliation, the final decision will have been made.

It is thought that whether the trade union that has been affiliated to Labour for almost 120 years will choose to sever that link in May depends on Whelan himself. “I think Mick will carry a huge chunk of the vote,” one ASLEF source said. The deciding factor could be “how powerfully Mick speaks”, another noted. The union is frustrated by a lack of engagement from the Labour leadership and worried that Starmer’s advisers are either “hapless and inept” or actively want to treat them as “the embarrassing uncle”. But if Whelan does not want to be the general secretary who oversaw disaffiliation, he may have to pull out the stops to save this particular union link.

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