Unison conference – Labour link debate

Socialist Party Is The Real Opposition

PUBLIC SECTOR union UNISON, with 1.3 million members, is the biggest trade union in Britain. One of the most important sessions at this year’s UNISON conference was the debate on the union’s link with New Labour. Bill Mullins, Socialist Party trade union organiser, reports on what happened.

HALF WAY through his opening contribution to the debate on the political fund, general secretary Dave Prentis attacked the motives of those who want to end the link between the union and New Labour. Asking the question who would gain from weakening the link, he declared that it would be the Socialist Party, big business, the CBI, Murdoch and the BNP.

This was a small taste of what became a feature of the conference. He and his supporters could not resist attacking the Socialist Party. In a later debate on the economy, they resorted to personal attacks on Glenn Kelly, delegate from the Bromley branch and a Socialist Party member

Many delegates were sickened by this, voicing their disgust from the rostrum. These attacks contributed to the best ever Socialist Party fringe meeting for a number of years, where delegates complimented the Socialist Party as being “the real opposition” to the right-wing in the union.

Political fund

An amendment from the Glasgow city branch proposed that if the union leadership was certain of support for the Labour link, then it should be put to a ballot of the whole membership. If that ballot said ‘no’ then the national executive (NEC) should bring forward proposals to the 2004 conference to set up a third political fund that could support parties and candidates other than the Labour Party.

UNISON is unique in that it has two political funds, one for general campaigning and the other for the Labour Party. Individuals can pay into both or one or neither.

All attempts to debate any of the other resolutions on the agenda, which proposed variations on the theme that there be one fund and it be used to support other political parties as well as Labour, were ruled out of order.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the organised Left, including the Socialist Workers Party, called for opposition to the Glasgow amendment and instead supported an amendment from Leicester health branch.

Even the mover of the Leicester amendment admitted in her reply that it was: “Not a very hard-hitting amendment and doesn’t ask UNISON to do very much”.

This was borne out by Prentis’ remarks that the Leicester amendment should be opposed because it only “notes” the report from the leadership which says the Labour link should be kept intact.

He reserved his venom for the Glasgow amendment because he saw the hand of the Socialist Party behind it.

He was forced to promise the conference that he intended to give the Labour Party a “kicking” and even he had been “angered” by failure up to now to make the link work for the union. “Two years ago we gave the Labour Party a warning but now it’s time to take hard decisions on the future of our union”.

He didn’t say what these hard decisions were, other than the conference should oppose the Glasgow amendment.

Glenn Kelly said that despite the tide of hostility to New Labour, the NEC had only proposed a name change for the Labour/UNISON link. “Your proposals amount to nothing more than a choice between being hung or shot, it’s time to let the members decide.”

Other Socialist Party members who spoke included Suzanne Muna, who likened keeping the link to an abusive relationship where the woman was told to “try harder” Nancy Taaffe added: “It’s time for a divorce”.

Unsurprisingly, given the short sightedness of the rest of the Left, the amendment was defeated. Nevertheless a sizeable proportion of the conference saw through the false arguments of the leadership and voted for the Glasgow amendment.

ROGER BANNISTER (right), Socialist Party member and recently re-elected to the national executive committee of UNISON told the socialist what he thought about the debate.

“UNISON debated their links with Labour for the third year in succession. We can’t disguise that the defeat of the Glasgow amendment was a setback. It was a missed opportunity to break the mould of politics in Britain.

UNISON Socialist Party members have consistently called for the breaking of the link with New Labour in order to defend the interests of the working class. The negative side-affects of the disenchantment with New Labour is the turning to the false policies of the BNP.

The decision to maintain the link does not reflect the UNISON members’ deep hostility to New Labour. Most activists know this and say so. It is hard to get anybody to pay money into the Affiliated Political Fund (APF), the fund that finances New Labour to the tune of £1.5 million a year.

Rigged debate

The recent NEC elections show this shift to the Left by the membership. But there are a number of reasons why the conference vote went the way it did.

First, it was a rigged debate with most resolutions being ruled out of order. One political fund, which was the preferred option of most on the Left, to allow the support for other political parties not just New Labour was not under discussion.

Second, the Left was split because it includes a large number who do not really want to split from New Labour and saw the debate as a means of ‘reclaiming the Labour Party’.

Two years ago many supported the idea of a review but it was ‘make your mind up time’ and they drew back, hoping that something would come up. For once the mass of the rank and file were well to the Left of the activist layer.

Socialist Party members saw the Glasgow amendment as an opportunity to take the issue forward. It would have meant a ballot of members and we could have campaigned against maintaining the link in this process. We were the only major group on the Left at the conference to see this.

Unfortunately the tactics required passed others on the Left by. We were the only ones a year ago to see that the only likely option at this conference would be a third fund. If a third fund is set up, then we would campaign to collapse the Labour link fund and stop members paying into it altogether.

Events have shown we were correct. Although the amendment was lost it was clear to the media and others that this was the issue. And they, like the leadership, highlighted the Socialist Party’s role in this threat to the status quo.

We now have to decide where to go from here. The issue won’t go away, New Labour’s attacks on our members will continue. The leadership’s promise to use their influence in the Labour Party will come to nothing and the gulf between UNISON members and the Labour Party will widen further.

The Socialist Party will initiate discussion amongst the Left and the rank and file about the best tactics and the way forward.

We have four Socialist Party councillors – they are more effective in defending the interests of UNISON members than 4,000 Labour councillors will ever be.”

“We cannot tolerate a situation where we are handing them our union dues on Friday, only to be handed redundancy and privatisation on Monday.”

Glenn Kelly, Socialist Party member, quoted in the Financial Times (19 June)

“We’re told to stay and change the actions of the abuser. But we can’t. If you stay you’ll be worse off.”

Suzanne Muna, (right) Socialist Party member, also quoted in the Financial Times (21 June)