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UNISON conference: Fiery speeches but bland policy statements
THE SOCIALIST Party's industrial organiser, Bill Mullins, reports from UNISON's annual conference.
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis gave a rousing speech to the conference:
"Like many others, I campaigned for Labour in the general election. 'Forward not back' was the slogan. What a missed opportunity! A complete absence of vision. All the things we believed in were absent, brushed under the carpet, no passion.
"Same old stuff: competition, targets, the politics of fear. ID cards, work gangs for young offenders, hoodies etc. Young people tarnished. The real hoodies are the multinationals who are making a killing from privatisation of our public services.
"I want the Warwick Agreement honoured in full...Is the government listening? No!
"Within a week of the general election Patricia Hewitt gives £3 billion to private hospitals. NHS hospitals will close if they're not competitive. The NHS has gone through 19 reorganisations in 19 years. We reject this third-term message completely. 87% of people want services kept in the public domain. I promise this government anew. We will strike across all sectors to defend pensions."
If you took Prentis at his word it would look like all hell was going to break out with UNISON preparing for battle with the Labour government. But reality has two sides. When it comes to the policies proposed by the UNISON leadership, the other side shows.
The NEC's main resolution partly reflected the anger in Dave Prentis' speech, at least as far as what to do next. It called for all the right things, pushed all the right buttons: "The need for the government to have a radical agenda to connect with people, equality, social justice, solidarity and democracy." This was all in the resolution and a policy document.
But the same leadership then rejected amendments which put concrete demands on them. But they overreached themselves once too often. Conference rejected an attempt by the leadership to welcome the Warwick Agreement.
[This was reached between New Labour and the trade union leaders just before the general election. In return for support for New Labour, various concessions were promised.]
As Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly said:
"The Warwick Agreement was no manifesto for a radical third term, it was a list of empty promises in order to buy the trade union leaders silence at the cost of millions of pounds of our members' money."
The leadership opposed Adrian O'Malley, also a member of the Socialist Party, who called for the union to campaign to bring back into the public domain those services privatised under Tory and Labour governments. He was told that this was "not realistic". But nearly half the delegates supported him in a show of hands.
Angelika Teweleit said that the link with Labour is a huge drag on the union. "In Germany this lesson is being learnt. Hundreds of trade unionists are gathering this week to launch a new workers' party."
Vicky Perrin, turning round and pointing at Prentis, demanded to know why he called for UNISON members to support Labour before the election. Yet he now condemns the same Labour government, quite rightly, for attacking public services through privatisation.
By this time the conference was waking up to the contradictions of fiery speeches and bland policy statements.
Delegates for example voted down support for the Warwick Agreement, voted to publish the voting records of all 54 UNISON-sponsored Labour MPs, against the platform's advice.
And the leadership could not directly oppose a call for a national demonstration on pensions, they knew this was going too far.
What started out as a relatively quiet conference began to partly reflect the massive anger felt by the rank and file against Blair and Brown's government.
In The Socialist 30 June 2005: