Monday, June 30, 2008

No such thing as a free lunch?

One optimistic reading of the story in today’s Guardian – that UNISON’s key demand upon the Government is an extension of free school meals – is that we wish to intervene in the education of children in order to contest the received economic wisdom reflected in the title of this post.

I shall resist drawing too many judgements until I have verified the reports, but I am struck by the absolute necessity for the review of UNISON’s political funds as called for by our National Delegate Conference, which – thanks to the successful amendment from the NEC – is intended “to scrutinise and reform operations and functional processes to ensure the highest levels of transparency, participation and activity.” With luck we will be able to work out how the apparent priority for our Labour Party intervention has been set in the light of the agreed policies of our Union.

Our Conference agreed some key policy priorities just a couple of weeks ago. Under our Rules, UNISON Labour Link is not, of course, directly accountable to our Conference. However, Conference has previously expressed the view that there should be “an appropriate degree of accountability between the APF and the union's structures at branch, regional and national levels.”

Therefore, some of the demands agreed at Conference, in relation to (for example) economic policy or trade union rights, might be taken to be the priorities which our Union ought to pursue when an opportunity to influence the Party of Government presents itself to us. UNISON Labour Link should take these priorities into account when deciding upon demands to place upon a Labour Government.

I do not mean to denigrate the importance of free school meals (no one who spends time making packed lunches would do that). Adequate nutritious school meals are vital to the education of our children. But if we have decided that this is our number one demand of the Government at the present time, how and by whom was this decision taken?

If, as the Guardian suggests, we have pitched demands at a level which we don’t think will benefit the Tories (because they are so gentle that New Labour can accept them without too much trouble) then who decided that this was a wise strategy? There are others out here who want a fourth term Labour Government and believe that the only slender chance for this is if the Party takes a dramatic turn towards the interests of its supporters. The progressive policy agenda set by UNISON Conference is probably the only hope for a Labour Government in 2010 – but if UNISON Labour Link won’t push wholeheartedly and enthusiastically for that agenda what chance will we have?

There are those who want the review of the political funds to be a debate about whether we build, here and now, a political alternative to the Labour Party. Perhaps I have contracted poverty of aspiration from too close association with those determining the policies of UNISON Labour Link, but my personal objective is less dramatic.

I would just like to know why we fail time and again to make any effective use of our relationship with the Labour Party, and whether there are enough UNISON members who care about this to find a way to do something about it.

Otherwise, we’ll be selling our birthright for a mess of mashed potato…

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