Fear of election gains sparks a bid to alter the law
Trade unions want the right under UK law to expel British National Party activists - and deny them membership - as part of Labour plans to check the electoral advance of the far right.
Labour backbenchers, supported by all the biggest unions, will unveil the plan on Tuesday when they put forward an amendment to the Employment Bill that would allow them to ban racists. The proposal - labelled 'Stalinist' by the BNP - comes amid concern that it could win as many as three seats in next year's European Parliament elections and make strong gains in council elections.
Labour MPs, many of whom feel threatened by the BNP's advances in their constituencies, are concerned that the party is encouraging activists to infiltrate unions in order to spread subversive, racist messages in the workplace.
Tony Lloyd, chairman of the trades union group of Labour MPs who has tabled the amendment, said it was vital that unions had the right to get rid of people working directly against their aims: 'What the unions are absolutely right to demand is the right to kick racists out of their organisations.'
Until now unions have had to work under a legal framework set down under the Thatcher government in the early 1990s which prevented them from excluding people because of their membership of a particular political party. The Tory rules were seen at the time as a ploy to prevent unions from excluding or expelling those who broke strikes or were Conservative party members.
But the government has to bring UK law into line with European law after Aslef, the train drivers' union, won a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights which upheld its right to expel a driver who was a BNP activist.
A spokesman for Thompsons solicitors, the trades union law firm, said: 'The amendment would mean a union could expel or deny membership to someone whose membership of a political party runs contrary to the union's rule book.'
The BNP has 10,000 members across Britain and 46 councillors. Labour is worried that under the proportional representation system that will be used in European parliamentary elections next June it could secure seats in three of the 12 regions.
Experts say that, under the list system, the BNP would need as little as 7.5 per cent of the vote in northwest England and only 11 per cent in Yorkshire and the West Midlands to install Euro-MPs in the Brussels and Strasbourg parliament. Labour also fears the BNP could become the largest party in two councils - Barking and Dagenham in Essex and Stoke-on-Trent - in next year's council elections if its anti-foreigner rhetoric struck a chord during the recession.
MPs, anti-BNP campaigners and lawyers say the bill as recently amended in the Lords would leave the law in limbo and not guarantee the right of a union to eject BNP members. Nick Lowles, director of the anti-fascist group Searchlight, said: 'The current wording of the Employment Bill leaves us in the worst of all worlds. Aslef would still not be able to expel Jay Lee [the BNP member at the centre of the original European Court ruling] and unions would be left open to further legal action from the BNP.'
Lowles said the amendment would give clarity, letting unions discipline and, where necessary, get rid of individual members for activities contrary to a union's rules and constitution.
A Department for Business spokesman said: 'This is a very delicate issue that involves people's rights to freedom of association and their political beliefs. The government's approach will strike a balance between these rights. Our present position is in line with the cross-party opinion in the Lords and Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights.'