Sunday, February 07, 2010

Coronation or election - political influence?

The third of UNISON's national objectives relates to campaigning and promoting UNISON. This objective is of particular importance to a public service trade union, since the terms and conditions of the majority of our members are determined not by the market mechanism directly but rather by political considerations. The influence which we have over national and local politicians matters directly to the pay, pensions and job security of UNISON members.

In assessing the "Oram hypothesis" that it would be best for our members if there were no contest in the election for General Secretary it is worth thinking a bit about how well we have done in building and using that influence over the past decade.

Under the New Labour Governments since 1997 we have witnessed the retention of anti-union laws which place restrictions upon trade unions in this country way beyond those faced in most OECD nations (and in breach of obligations to the International Labour Organisation). With the unions still shackled we have also seen an extension of privatisation of our public services beyond the dreams of the Thatcher Government.

UNISON has repeatedly spoken out against these reactionary policies (and other such policies, such as the introduction of tuition fees and identity cards and - of course - the attack on Iraq). Our policies are progressive policies of which socialists can generally be proud - we are advocating policies in our members' interests.

But as a major affiliate to the Labour Party, it would be difficult to say that we have had much success in influencing the Labour Party in Government.

One of the key tests UNISON set ourselves in Blair's second term was to try to prevent foundation hospitals but in spite of a significant Parliamentary rebellion the Government won the day. UNISON's sizeable group of MPs included many rebels, but these were outnumbered by those who put loyalty to the policy of the Government (which was not supported by the Labour Party) ahead of any loyalty to UNISON.

When UNISON Conference instructed the Union to publish the voting record of MPs associated with the Party the Union responded by putting a link on the website to the admirable TheyWorkForYou website - rather than have to acknowledge too openly on our own site just how little MPs happy to be associated with our Union were prepared to support our policies.

One of the few benefits for individual trade unionists of being an "affiliated" Labour Party member is having a vote in elections for the Party Leader - but UNISON was instrumental (along with other affiliated trade unions) in making sure that MPs were not encouraged to nominate another candidate so that none of our members got to vote for anyone when Gordon Brown enjoyed his "coronation". Having decided to back Gordon Brown for Labour Party Leader, UNISON then became part of the farce in which the trade unions all backed different Deputy Leadership candidates (leading eventually to the victory of the only candidate with no trade union nominations!)

At the eleventh hour Dave Prentis intervened at last year's Conference to cut across the ongoing review of the political funds and announce the termination of Constituency Development Plans. This was a welcome move - but the approach of prioritising UNISON's interests in the application of our political funds is one we should have adopted at the beginning, not the end, of a Labour Government!

Such is our pride in our Parliamentary work these days that whilst there is still a list on our website of UNISON Members of the European Parliament, the list of UNISON MPs has disappeared from the Labour Link home page...

Wednesday's NEC meeting will receive the report of the Review of the Political Funds which will conclude that the existing arrangements, whilst they can be improved a little, are essentially sound and should be retained.

This flabby complacency about our poor political performance over the past decade may be consistent with support for a coronation of our General Secretary (after all, it worked so well for Gordon Brown?)

However, those who want UNISON to have the weight our numbers - and the quality of the best of our work - deserve may prefer to see an election in which different views can find expression and be debated by our members.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Me again!

I must say you took me aback with your comment that you have a lot of respect for Dave Prentis!

I wasn't expecting to hear that, and to be frank I'm really quite curious as to what it is about him that you respect?

Yours in solidarity