A watershed moment in union politics

Submitted by cathy n on 16 June, 2008 - 3:29 Author: Martin Thomas

At the recent Communication Workers’ Union conference, there was a motion calling for the CWU to campaign to reverse the decision of the 2007 Bournemouth Labour Party conference to ban all political motions to future conferences from unions or local Labour Parties - in effect, to abolish the conference as a conference.
It failed to reach the floor. Another motion, calling for a re-balance of the union’s political fund money towards wider political campaigning rather than just funding the Labour Party, and for the union to give financial support only to Labour MPs who support CWU policy, also dropped off the agenda.
GMB leader Paul Kenny has been talking militant, and speculating about the GMB disaffiliating from the Labour Party. But at the recent GMB congress a motion for the immediate withdrawal of GMB sponsorship from any MP who acted against GMB policy was manoeuvred against by the leadership and fell. (The vote looked close but the chair refused to listen to calls for a card vote and summarily announced that the motion had fallen.)
The GMB leadership protested that the motion would "tie our hands", and asked: "What if we sponsored the Home Secretary or another senior minister? We've got to accept that they're answerable to something higher than GMB policy."
The usual stuff? Yes; but also no. Those two conferences mark a historic watershed in the history of the British working-class movement: the moment of passive trade-union submission to the abolition after 107 years of the final traces of working-class input into the Labour Party.
Unison conference is yet to come, but the structure of that union means that any motions like the “anti-Bournemouth” one at CWU conference would be ruled out of order. The platform would say that such matters must instead be considered by the separate structure (tightly controlled, with little membership participation) called “Unison Labour Link”.
Unite (TGWU-Amicus) has no conference scheduled until November 2009, after the promised “review” period for the Bournemouth ban expires. The motion pushed by AWL members in Unite, for an emergency conference of the union on the issue of the Bournemouth ban, is not getting enough support to be able to force such a conference.
In principle it is possible that the 2009 union conferences could suddenly turn militant on the question. But it must now be unlikely. Even when the Bournemouth ban is followed by Brown imposing real wage cuts on the public sector workers who make up the main forces of the unions, and trashing civil liberties by imposing 42 days’ detention without trial, the unions submit.
There was no “groundswell” in the unions on the Bournemouth issue. In a long view, the unions leaders bear responsibility for the absence of “groundswell” as well as for their manoeuvres at the union conferences.
In the time - up to about ten days before the Bournemouth conference in 2007! - when the union leaders were telling the press that they would never let the ban pass, they made no attempt to inform and educate their union members on the issues. Probably to this day, most union activists do not even know that the Bournemouth decision was carried.
When the union leaders had put left-wing motions through Labour Party conference - as they did more or less regularly between 2002 and 2007 - they had made no complaint about the fact that the Labour Party leaders did not even bother to say they would ignore the conference decisions.
They did not publicise the motions that had been passed, or use their positions on Labour’s National Executive to push for them to be implemented. No wonder that most union activists concluded that it made little difference whether union motions were debated or not.
Over the last 15 years or so, the main union leaders have effectively waged a campaign to beat down and suppress among working-class activists the idea that there should be, or can be, working-class politics and a working-class party. The “left-wing” ones elected in more recent years have done that, as well as their “right-wing” predecessors of the 1990s.
In fact, all the major issues in politics are class issues. There is no viewpoint on those issues “above class”. To fail to work out and fight for a working-class policy on those issues is to accept that workers can do no better than choose between variants crafted by different factions of the wealthy classes. Or, if the wealthy are solidly united on an issue, just to accept that the rich rule.
There is a limit to how long workers will accept that. How near or close that limit is, we can’t say. What we can say is that a chief task of socialists must be to fight to bring the limit closer, by arguing for the principle of working-class politics and the goal of a workers’ government, a government which serves the working class, and is accountable to it, as loyally as Thatcher, Blair, and Brown have served the rich.

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