The view from outside

Kevin Maguire on breakaways

Here is a poser for the Labour hierarchy. If a trade union is expelled by the party, does its parliamentary group of MPs a) abandon ship, b) hold the fort, or c) grow rapidly? The answer, in the case of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, is an unexpected c. Since the RMT was kicked out of Labour in February 2004, after seeking to ride two political horses by backing the party and supporting left-wing rivals, its parliamentary group, chaired by the Labour MP John McDonnell, is up from a dozen to more than a score. Ask virtually any activist or official in the union and they will tell you the group is also considerably more active than it has been for years, supporting RMT campaigns against private rail companies and rogue shipping lines.

The fate of the two unions no longer linked nationally to Labour - the RMT and Fire Brigades Union (which voted in June 2004 to sever formal ties dating from 1918 in a backlash against the government's handling of a bitter pay dispute) - is an inspiration to some activists and a warning to others.

The RMT still wants to be part of the Labour Party and is preparing legal action against Old Queen Street's decision to show the door to a union that, in 1899, proposed the creation of a political organisation to represent working people in the House of Commons. The first union to be expelled in the party's history, the RMT still operates under a rule book that requires it to be affiliated, and underlines how it wanted to be freer rather than free of the party.

After years of slashing financial support and severing ties with prominent Labour figures, including the late Robin Cook, who refused to sign up to RMT policy, the crunch was the union's plan to back other parties. The Labour leadership warned the RMT under its hard-left general secretary Bob Crow - never an individual member of the party - that it would be cast adrift should it agree to back rivals, and the feeling was that the union wanted it both ways.

The RMT has since affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party, and gifted it £9,000 to fight the general election. But the union donated double that to Labour via a dozen constituency parties with strong links to the RMT, including Dover, West Derby, Luton North, Keighley, Peterborough and McDonnell's Hayes & Harlington, which each received £1,500.

The FBU has also backed selected local parties. A string of constituency parties including Stoke Central, Hendon, Hornchurch and Hayes & Harlington were handed more than £1,000 each. The FBU has also funded the new party of expelled Labour-turned-Respect MP George Galloway, with its London and Eastern regions approving donations of £1,000. In the capital, the FBU regional committee supported a Respect election candidate against its one-time official Jim Fitzpatrick in Poplar & Canning Town. Fitzpatrick's re- election as a Labour MP and appointment as fire minister suggest that may prove an unwise move. Also, the FBU has elected far-left Matt Wrack (not so very long ago a leading light in the Socialist Party) as general secretary, who comfortably beat Labour leftwinger Andy Gilchrist in a postal ballot.

The FBU is seeking to improve relations with Labour in Scotland and Wales, plus parties in Northern Ireland, where fire policy is devolved from London and permits an opportunity to bypass political problems evident in England. Since it said goodbye to Labour, the FBU elected far-left Matt Wrack (not so very long ago a leading light in the Socialist Party) as general secretary, who comfortably beat Labour leftwinger Andy Gilchrist in a postal ballot.

What is clear in both the RMT and FBU is that an end to the Labour link nationally does not mean severing ties locally.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror