Unite conferences: political strategy and anti-union laws

Rule conference debates political strategy: Workers’ political alternative still needed

Socialist Party members in Unite

The highlight of the conference was a whole number of rule amendments which sought to open up Unite’s political strategy, so that its support for electoral candidates isn’t restricted to the Labour Party, of which Unite is the biggest affiliate.

Socialist Party members supported a number of the proposed rule amendments, including number 53 to rule 22.2 from LE1228 Waltham Forest Council Branch. This would have enabled Unite to “give support to the candidates of any political party… that the Executive Council deems support the union’s members, policies and objectives.”

However, as happened under the previous leadership of Len McCluskey, the Unite Executive Council (EC) presented a statement moved by General Secretary Sharon Graham that, by being passed, resulted in all the related rule amendments falling.

After the debate, which saw the EC statement passed, Unite’s press release claimed: “Unite overwhelmingly rejects disaffiliation from the Labour Party.”

But the rule amendment wasn’t to disaffiliate; instead it was to open up the political strategy to enable the union to decide, rather than Sir Keir Starmer, which candidates it wants to support.

He is addressing Unite policy conference on Thursday. In moving the EC statement, Sharon took a combative tone to Starmer: “Labour must be Labour, and the union must push them into that position. We must make them take different choices. We will not make the same mistakes of the past – there will be no blank cheques for Labour until we see tangible results.”

But imagine if she had the weapon of being able to warn Starmer that the union could support candidates against his New Labour?

It would have far more pressure than now, when Starmer can ride roughshod over union affiliates, knowing that whatever he decides, their support for him is guaranteed. 

It is understandable that with her militant industrial leadership of Unite, Sharon was able to win the debate at this particular time, as the general election nears.

But many of the delegates, despite the vote, have major concerns about the pro-capitalist policies of Starmer, Wes Streeting and Co. This debate will have helped harden that stance and prepares the ground for when a likely Starmer government acts in the interests of big business not workers.

And there are many questions left unresolved, such as whether the union will, alongside the RMT rail union, back Jeremy Corbyn if he decides to stand independently of Labour. The fight for working-class political representation will continue.

Nonetheless, the mistaken position put by the executive majority will have given confidence to the right wing in the union, who want to retreat from Sharon’s whole manifesto. That’s why a new fighting left organisation in the union is more urgent than ever.

Stop Press: Policy conference agrees to fight anti-union laws

Unite’s policy conference began on 11 July with one of the most important discussions that will take place all week, on fighting the Tory minimum service levels (MSL) anti-union legislation.

Conference overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, passed motions opposing the laws, in particular composite 10, which brought together motions from LE1228 Waltham Forest Council branch and LE7384L Barts Health branch.

The composite called for a campaign of meetings, rallies, demos and industrial action against these undemocratic Tory laws. It also called on the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to organise a mass demonstration and to coordinate action, including in the form of a 24-hour general strike.

The motion was moved by Kevin Parslow of Waltham Forest Council branch and a member of the Socialist Party. In his speech, Kevin made clear the potential power of the working class against a weak, divided Tory government. He reminded the conference of the mass movement of general strike proportions in 1972, when members of a forerunner of Unite, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, forced the release of the ‘Pentonville 5’ dockers and decisively defeated the Tory government.

In his speech, Kevin reported that the National Shop Stewards Network motion had been passed unanimously at the RMT transport union conference, and the RMT agreed to call a demonstration in the autumn. He said Unite must work with other unions and support that demo.

Keir Starmer is due to address Unite conference on 13 July. Kevin called on the union to demand that where Labour is the employer, they should refuse to issue work notices, which they are not legally compelled to do.  David Oladele, convenor of Unite at St Mungo’s, on indefinite strike, also spoke in the debate.

  • A fuller analysis of the conferences will be in next week’s Socialist