Unison: the left must organise industrial battles

Submitted by Anon on 12 August, 2004 - 2:53

By Kate Ahrens

This year's Unison National Conference was a curate's egg for the left, but perhaps it reveals some of the errors that have been made many times by the left, and some of the strengths that we don't make the most of.

The left's 'big idea' for this conference was a single-line motion calling for the resignation of Tony Blair. As is so often the case, this was not a conscious plan, but rather a combination of chance and circumstances, as well as a result of the odd set-up within Unison, where the full National Conference cannot discuss specific industrial issues.

The left has for the last few years been searching for a way to get the political debate on the link with the Labour Party openly onto the agenda, and failing, due to the convoluted political fund structure inside Unison. This motion seemed to be a gift.

In the event, the left was utterly crushed in the debate, not even managing to gain the third of the conference votes that hard-left motions consistently receive. This was not an indication of the weakness of the left in the union generally, but it was a sign that the topic for debate had been terribly misjudged. What's worse, nobody on the left knew this was coming.

This vote coming on the first afternoon of a four-day conference, the left's confidence was understandably knocked. But other things in the week were firm indications that on issue-based, particularly industrial, areas, the left is in a stronger position inside the union than it has been for some time.

On the Monday before the start of National Conference, the local government section of the union held its conference and overturned the wishes of the national leadership on all key aspects of industrial policy.

Only a lot of fast manoeuvring saved the leadership from an embarrassing defeat on consultation over the latest pay deal.

Despite their best efforts, the leadership were heavily defeated on general pay strategy and on the Remodelling the Workforce Agreement for education workers in schools. The general attitude of the delegates was much more combative on these crucial terms and conditions questions than the leadership of the union wanted.

The health section of the union, meanwhile, is in the midst of a five-year negotiation on a new pay structure for the whole of the NHS. There was, of course, nothing on the agenda about it, and, perhaps more surprisingly, there were no official fringe meetings to give updates and answer questions.

An unofficial fringe meeting, called on the lunchtime of the last day of conference, confounded all expectations by attracting more than 120 delegates. The debate was angry and much more combative than even some of the left had expected.

In these areas, the left has to lose some of its own reticence and stop being afraid to offer genuine leadership. It seems clear that until some real progress is made in moving the union on industrial issues, the activists within the union are going to have little time for the rhetoric in conference motions that the left is concentrating its efforts on now.

But the overall lesson from the conference for the left should be that a shift in emphasis is required rather than despair at failures on conference floor.

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