Sunday, June 21, 2009

Slapping the Hand that Bites Us...

I'll start my delayed reporting from UNISON Conference in Brighton with the speech of General Secretary, Dave Prentis, which he gave on Tuesday 16 June.

In a speech which both shocked and pleased the great majority of delegates, Dave called upon the UNISON Labour Link Committee immediately to suspend all the Constituency Development Plans which UNISON has with Constituency Labour Parties, with a view in future to supporting only those Members of Parliament and Parliamentary candidates who support our core policies.

A special meeting of the UNISON Labour Link Committee later in Conference week endorsed this call by a majority, although a small but recalcitrant right wing rump were reportedly dejected and outraged. The detail of what will now be done will now have to be discussed by the UNISON National Labour Link Forum in early July.

In making his call - which reflected the policy demand which has been advanced by leftwing activists in the Union for some years - the General Secretary consciously used a phrase which had been used some years previously in a memorable Conference speech by Glenn Kelly, Bromley UNISON Branch Secretary and a prominent Socialist Party member.

Dave echoed Glenn in saying that UNISON members are fed up with "feeding the hand that bites them". This deliberate use of a phrase from an earlier debate sent a striking message, to experienced Conference delegates, about the need for new thinking.

What was remarkable about this speech was not just that, had it been a Conference motion, it would have been ruled out of order for breaching the autonomy of the Political Fund but that, in reality it spells the end of that autonomy.

However much the Rule Book may continue to give sole responsibility for the management of the Political Fund to the National Labour Link Committee, it has now been made clear - by the General Secretary - that this must substantively, if not formally, be subordinate to the Union as a whole.

Prentis had reportedly been working on his speech (in strict secrecy) for some weeks though its contents, (reflecting a significant volte face on the part of the leadership of UNISON) came as a surprise to almost all who heard it.

Whether this will prove to have been merely a temporary reaction to political difficulties - as was the suspension of donations to the Labour Party during the dispute over the Local Government Pension Scheme - or whether this will lead to permanent change remains to some extent to be seen.

However, having let the genie of the accountability of Labour Link to the wider Union out of the bottle constructed from the Rule Book and the deals done when UNISON was created in 1993, Dave Prentis may have started a process of change which will not stop.

The fact that the Labour Link Committee was not given prior notice of these very significant proposals is in its way as important as the substance of what was said.

With only 30% of public service workers currently planning to vote Labour in the next General Election and less than one in three UNISON members choosing to pay into the Affiliated part of the Political Fund, the continued viability of UNISON's affiliation to the Labour Party is called increasingly into question.

I don't know whether the present political and economic crisis is the terminal crisis of Labourism but it could all too easily be terminal for UNISON Labour Link if those who still see value in a relationship with the Labour Party do not very rapidly make the change which Conference so obviously wanted.

If the National Labour Link Committee put to the National Forum clear policy demands for the next manifesto and a proposal for the commitments we would seek before supporting Parliamentary candidates, and if these plans are subject to genuine consultation throughout the wider Union then it may be possible to preserve the relationship between the Union and the Party in some form.

On the basis of the past performance of UNISON Labour Link it is not possible to be optimistic about this.

Another element of Dave's speech was the reference to independent political campaigning by UNISON under the new banner of the "Million Voices for Change" campaign, as part of which the National Executive issued a statement on the economic crisis updating a positive and progressive statement issued last October as the scale of the financial crisis was becoming clear. UNISON activists can use the framework of this national campaign to develop local initiatives.

Those who can participate in UNISON Labour Link should do so - not least by using this week and next to nominate leftwing candidates in the elections for the directly elected seats on the National Labour Link Committee. Nomination forms are online now - and branches need to convene meetings of Labour Link payers to make valid nominations(refer to the election procedures).

The majority of UNISON members outside the Labour Link (and those within) need to seize the Million Voices for Change campaign and sign up to give it teeth, so that instead of feeding the hand that bites us we can slap it, or even bite back.

1 comment:

Dan said...

The links to the forms are broken.