Monday, June 23, 2008

Adrift in a political storm?

The Conference database is online – so you can check out decisions from last week in Bournemouth as it is updated. I have been thinking a bit about the political context within which our discussions took place.

From one perspective the week at UNISON Conference saw a series of debates take place in which there was an underlying theme of delegates questioning the link with the Labour Party – and this theme finally found clear expression in a debate on the Friday afternoon in which the Conference narrowly accepted an NEC amendment to a motion from the Bromley branch in what was seen as a rebuff to those seeking disaffiliation from the Labour Party.

I think that this perspective sees less than a quarter of what was going on at Conference. The anger which certainly exists amongst UNISON activists is directed primarily against the Government and, for some, secondarily against our own leadership who are seen as not doing enough.

There are those who are angry with the Government and yet supportive of the leadership – and amongst those who are critical of the leadership there are advocates of disaffiliation, but also many (including many Labour Party members) who do not want to break the link with the Party but rather to use it more effectively. (Indeed the NEC would not have won their amendment on Friday afternoon without the support on this occasion of some of those critics, notably from the Scottish Health branches).

The long standing crisis of political representation of the working class becomes more pronounced with each passing year, and is expressed not only in the distance between the Labour Party in Government and millions of trade union members, but also in the withering connection between the experience of the millions and the articulation of that experience on our behalf by our leadership.

The anger expressed by Conference delegates was the product of the frustration of ordinary members experiencing a pay freeze in the context of privatisation, job insecurity, spiralling workloads and a workplace culture in which bullying is seen in too many cases as good and effective management practice.

This frustration on the part of hundreds of thousands of our members is given voice as anger by hundreds of activists particularly when we do not hear our leadership articulating these feelings unless they are gift wrapped in warm words about the many good things for which we have to thank the Government.

Time after time delegates came to the rostrum to express this anger and frustration, but the process whereby the agenda was constructed had left few points at which Conference could be invited to take a decision to express an opinion about the causes of this crisis – or about how the Union should respond in a general way.

When we got to Friday afternoon we had a motion which called not for disaffiliation but for a review of our political funds reporting back to Conference with a view towards a ballot of our members, which was amended by the NEC, not to express opposition to disaffiliation but to change the nature of the review which is now to take place. (The drafters of what was reasonably called a “wrecking amendment” may have intended when writing it to bury the review but politics has moved on and this will not now be possible.)

The NEC amendment was carried fairly narrowly with a majority of 60,000 on a card vote. The importance of the vote itself was largely symbolic and may have left a number of my NEC colleagues travelling home from Bournemouth feeling somehow vindicated in the political leadership which they may believe that they have been giving to our Union. This would almost certainly be unwise – it is certainly unjustified.

The political context in which UNISON Conference took place is one in which the candidate backed enthusiastically by our Union leadership for the leadership of the Labour Party has, as Prime Minister, turned out if anything to be worse for our members than his predecessor. The response of the Labour Party leadership to catastrophic election results, which almost certainly presage a Tory Government, has been to cling to the mantra of “modernisation” which means an intensification of the pressures giving rise to anger and frustration at the base of our Union.

The very limited material basis for a policy of rapprochement with the Labour leadership in return for occasional concessions and modest redistribution, which has been the hallmark of the past eleven years, is vanishing from beneath the feet not just of UNISON’s leadership but of the leadership of the TUC.

In these circumstances delegates could reasonably have expected to come to Conference to debate an Emergency Motion from the NEC on the outcome of the May elections and to be given a clear indication of a new direction for our Union to build our strength to defend our members against Governments of either colour and to campaign for our policies in a determined and energetic fashion, building alliances with those who agree with us rather than giving succour to those who do not.

Unfortunately all we were ever going to have was a statement from the NEC – and then we did not even have that. At Conference, the NEC was presented, at our 8.30am meeting on Wednesday, with what appeared to be an unfinished draft of a statement obviously based upon the earlier drafting of a motion which had subsequently been abandoned. Although titled – rather boldly – a “Plan of Political Action” it was in fact a rather short shopping list of demands to place upon the Government which did not even go as far as Conference policy already had.

As a sop to the floor of Conference it would have been a disaster so perhaps it is just as well that when the NEC was informed on the following morning (as if we had not always known) that under our Rules such a statement could neither be amended nor debated by Conference this was used as the occasion for the NEC to refer this sad little statement to our own Policy Committee meeting in July rather than embarrass ourselves by showing it to Conference.

In the absence of a keynote political intervention from the leadership of the Union, the simmering anger of the Conference was channelled into fairly sterile knockabout shadow boxing about the Labour Link, distinguished by anonymous red-baiting leaflets on the Conference floor and ersatz anger from our Deputy General Secretary.

Why, in these most difficult of times, is UNISON drifting rudderless into the coming political storm? I’ll be sure to ask at the next NEC meeting, just as soon as there is one…


Macullam said...

just a question how come leaflets can be distributed on the conference floor when others are being disciplined for leafletting outside the conference.

Anonymous said...

And the reason why the leadership are moving to discipline the so-called 'Trots' and anyone who is an effective opponent is because they see the coming storm just as clearly as the left. The opposition will coalesce around capable and principled individuals, but those individuals represent social forces. The bureacrats think that by beheading the hydra of rebellion they can keep it as 'politics as usual', yet all the time the material basis for their collaboration is disappearing. So all the investigations, expulsions and, yes, virtual collusion at victimisation will not be able to stop the process. I just hope that people like Glen Kelly, Yunus Baksh and Tony Staunton do not get damaged in that process.
Union rep, NHS