Sunday, June 22, 2008

Back from Conference

As I predicted I didn’t find the time to live blog at UNISON Conference this past week – except for one brief stint as a stand in. I left the live blogging to others (here and here for example).

There are also a lot of official reports of the Conference which were coming out promptly during the Conference week. UNISON’s use of electronic communications is beginning to catch up with the twenty first century! It is a shame that there were not more television screens on which to watch the Conference around the Centre, as this makes it easier to do the necessary networking and other work without missing out on Conference debates.

With the benefit of hindsight of the week as a whole I will make some belated comments on particular debates over the next few days as I find the time, with a view to thinking about what UNISON activists need to do now in the light of the decisions which we have taken at our Conference.

Before I start thinking about the broader political lessons of the week, I’ll start with some observations about Conference procedure. The Standing Orders Committee (SOC) will be having their annual review of Conference – although the NEC won’t be able to make a collective contribution having decided not to meet now until October (about which more later). Regions will be consulted and branches who want to make their voices heard should check with their Region how the Region will be responding (but could also contact SOC members directly I am sure).

SOC – Pre-Conference procedure

SOC themselves need to address the problems reflected in the large proportion of motions ruled out of order – which in a small number of cases SOC recognised by changing their minds before and during Conference week. The Chair of SOC in introducing the second SOC report on Tuesday morning suggested that efforts might be made to find a way of giving advice to branches on how to ensure that motions and Rule Amendments are in order. As a colleague from the London Region said to me on Monday evening, UNISON provides training to help our activists in almost every area of Union activity, with the exception of training and assistance in the governance of the Union.

If SOC met in December (say) they could consider motions submitted well ahead of the Conference deadline and, where these were ruled out of order, could give some general advice about how the movers might seek to achieve their objectives without being ruled out. This would only formalise and make more helpful the informal advice which is already given (although I have experience of submitting motions based upon informal advice given one year only to see them ruled out of order the following year…)

As I have observed before, the rulings of SOC have become more restrictive year on year. Debates which we had in the past (about the election of officials for example) would not now be permitted and – each year – new categories of “out of order” motions seem to arise. It is clear that SOC believe that the endorsement of an SOC report by Conference one year reflects a real and binding acceptance of their rulings, rather than simply a pragmatic and slightly weary attempt to get on with as much debate as is possible in unsatisfactory circumstances. Conference is supposed to run the Union, not to be an extended rally at which delegates debate motions supported by the NEC whilst making speeches critical of the leadership. Branches who are dissatisfied with the way things are going should engage with SOC over the coming year – it is no good waiting until we get to Conference next year to express our disappointment.

Rostrum Control and Speakers Lists

The procedures around rostrum control need to be reviewed if comments which I heard from a number of different delegates are to be believed. Keeping speakers lists for contentious debates is an accepted practice which has dramatically reduced squabbles at the front of the Conference about who is speaking when. However the practice only works if there is confidence that speakers are listed in the order in which their names are given in. Such confidence can easily (and probably quite unjustifiably) be shaken – particularly when there are very obvious attempts to “carve out” certain speakers…

Before I was elected to the NEC I was often involved in “floor organising” at Conference and – as a general rule – I found that the process of selecting speakers at UNISON Conference was fair and even (once you understood it) transparent. It would be a great shame if delegates came to believe that this had ceased to be the case.

Conference bulletins

Accepting that I may have a slightly jaundiced view on this, I was disappointed that the bulletins produced by the Regions for Conference delegates appear to be becoming increasingly anodyne as the years go by. This year the Young Members decided not to produce a bulletin. The London Region bulletin is a shadow of its former self, there being more controversy on most restaurant menus than in the pages of “London Calling”.

Over the years paid officials, acting on behalf of the NEC have successfully asserted authority over the lay officials, accountable to their Regional Councils and Committees, who produce the Regional bulletins. This is part and parcel of the continuing drive to turn Conference from a debating chamber into a “showcase” for the Union. I am not in favour of controversy for its own sake, and there are important issues on which we have a consensus that deserves to find expression in Conference debate. However, a Conference devoid of controversy would be a pointless event.

It is an amusing irony that dissenting messages have to be spelt out in code in Conference bulletins, but this ought not to be necessary.

Our members don’t, I think, want to bear the cost of a Conference at which we gather primarily to congratulate one another on the foresight and wisdom shown by our lay leadership in doing the bidding of the decisionmakers.

Debate in closed session

One thing that worked well was the closed session on Wednesday morning. Clearly we could have done this last year or the year before – and it is a sensible precaution to take when there is a fear that discussion may place the Union in legal jeopardy.

We should have a private session again next year since issues around Equal Pay won’t have gone away (and if we can debate branch funding for Equal Pay without the world ending we should be able to debate our general policy in the same way?) Of course there should be no live blogging during a closed session.

The cost of our Conference is worth paying if Conference is a genuine occasion for the membership of the Union to hold its leadership to account. However we cannot restore Conference to democratic life during a single week by the seaside.

UNISON members who believe that dissent, debate and disagreement are as much part of our trade union heritage as loyalty and solidarity need to engage, during the coming year with the various reviews which are now taking place, not least the SOC’s review of Conference.

Trade union democracy is for life, not just for Conference…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that, for some, this will go down as a successful conference.
If all we want is a conference of people agreeing to what most (not all, of course) on the NEC determine should be our policy, why not abandon the idea of conference and just do an online voting system? And save the time, and resource, involved in running a democratic conference.
My, didn't Mr Sonnet see his ass over Motion 63?! This motion was the only one to generate any debate and call for a positive review..... as a result, the NEC wrecked it with their amendment and it was left to Fri afternoon to debate such a key issue. It's pathetic.....