The outcome of this year’s Labour Party conference, opening in Manchester on 30 September, will depend on how seriously the Unite union, Labour’s largest affiliate, takes its own policy.
The Unite union adopted a new document at its Policy Conference on 25-28 June 2012, for a more aggressive political strategy in the Labour Party
On the agenda in Manchester is a rule change proposed by Bridgend CLP to allow Labour conference to amend National Policy Forum documents. Though the change sounds technical and fiddly, it could change conference dramatically. What was done at Labour conference before Blair through motions from Constituency Labour Parties and unions would be done through amendments to NPF documents, and better, because in the old days often a National Executive statement passed through conference as take-it-or-leave-it could be cited to neutralise awkward but successful motions from CLPs.
Bridgend’s rule change has to jump three hurdles. It has to avoid getting ruled out of order. The Conference Arrangements Committee has already ruled out 28 rule-change proposals this year, on concocted grounds. Unite should back a challenge against ruling-out Bridgend.
Next hurdle: the platform can say that the issue is “under review”, and ask for Bridgend’s proposal to be “remitted”. If Unite backs Bridgend, that manoeuvre can be defeated.
Finally, of course, the rule change has to win a majority. Again, Unite’s vote will be pivotal.
No-one dares argue that Labour conference procedure is fine as it is. The arguments will be that we should “give time” to Ed Miliband, not rush things, and remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Trouble is, time is short.
By the time of the 2014 conference we will be only months away from a general election, and big shifts of Labour’s direction will be more difficult.
According to the figures which the Labour Party is legally obliged to give to the Electoral Commission, Labour membership at the end of 2011 was 193,000 — 37,000 up on end-2009, but unchanged from end-2010, and still low.
Despite Unite’s commitments to increase trade union intervention in the Labour Party, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey told the Guardian (7 September) that “membership of the Labour Party among Unite members was probably at its lowest ever figure of around 12,000, which included 2,000 recruited this year through a campaign to attract more people into the party”.
On 10 September, after the TUC made cautious moves to consider further strikes against Government policy, Ed Miliband shamefully rebuked the unions: “The public doesn’t want to see strikes. Nor do your members”.
Labour rule changes are essential, but valuable only if used to win and enforce new policies. Again, much depends on what the big unions, especially Unite, do.
In recent speeches Ed Miliband has tried to define his new catchphrase, “an economy that works for working people”, by the term “predistribution”.
Predistribution means what? Nationalisation of the banks, in line with the policy adopted by the unions at TUC congress on 10 September? Repeal of the Tory anti-union laws and introduction of positive workers’ rights to organise and to strike? Big increase in the minimum wage, even? Miliband mentioned nothing specific.
Labour Party insiders guess that “predistribution” is likely to come up at Labour conference only in Ed Miliband’s speech, or possibly in a motion which a right-wing union like Usdaw will have submitted after prodding from Ed Miliband’s office.
Unite and other unions can and should seize the high ground.
They should submit motions insisting on “redistribution” for retired people, disabled people, and others; on the rich being taxed heavily to expand public services (run as public services, and not privatised and marketised); and on actual measures of “predistribution” like living wages, union rights, and bank nationalisation.