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Unions vote for political hara-kiri

Submitted by martin on 23 September, 2007 - 9:17 Author: Martin Thomas

Sunday 23 September: a grim day in Bournemouth. The unions voted overwhelmingly to disenfranchise the working class - to ban themselves (and the local Labour Parties) from putting motions on current issues to future Labour Party conferences.

Click here for background, and leaflet to download.

Since the vote, on the first day of Labour Party conference 2007, was on rule changes, it was by card, not by show of hands, and the result will be announced on Monday 24 September, but there is no doubt about the broad picture.

No trade-union delegate spoke against the rule changes (though long-standing CLP leftist Belle Harris did).

There was a big row about the rule changes in the delegation of the post and telecom union CWU, and general secretary Billy Hayes pushed through support for the political hara-kiri only by 11 votes to 8, but there was little sign of much argument in the delegations of the other big unions.

Unite (the merger of Amicus and TGWU) organised a demonstration before the conference, a few hundred strong, on various social issues, and the GMB had a small demonstration of Remploy workers outside the conference centre.

Workers' Liberty activists distributed leaflets at these demonstrations condemning the rule changes. We got a friendly response, but not an agitated or passionate one. No-one was up for heckling Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley to ask why he is going along with the rule changes although he was a billed speaker for a rally opposing the rule changes on 11 September, and on 12 September told the press that there was "no chance" of the rule changes going through.

We leafleted delegates going into the conference too. There, not even a friendly response, really, except from a few. A polite response from many, but also a curt "no, thank you" from many sharp-suited and prosperous-looking New-Labour-type delegates.

The union general secretaries' case, from what we can gather, is that what they meant by "opposing" the rule changes is that they wanted to persuade Gordon Brown to withdraw them. He wouldn't. TULO, the trade-union/ Labour liaison body, felt it could not possibly have a row with Gordon Brown if a general election may be coming soon, so it backed down; and (they said) individual unions should be disciplined and back the TULO line.

As far as we can establish, Brown did not even offer a sop to sweeten the rule changes, a concession on agency workers' rights, or a promise to do a "Warwick 2". He just stared down the unions, waited for them to "blink"... and they blinked.

That was enough to make current crop of union general secretaries give away the political voice that their unions fought for in the past, and have maintained for 107 years - and do it without any consultation with their members, indeed, after telling their members up to the last minute that there was "no chance" of them agreeing to such a betrayal.

The first task now is a campaign of motions through union branches condemning the leaderships' betrayal and preparing the way for a fight at the 2008 union conferences to get the unions to submit rule changes demanding a restoration of their political rights.

Apart from anything else, it's a basic question of union democracy. But it will be an uphill battle. The other dismaying thing at Bournemouth, and in the days leading up to it, has been the profound demoralisation of many union and Labour activists: "It's very bad, but there's nothing we can do about it".

But uphill battles need to be fought as well as the downhill ones. If, say, the current credit crisis develops into a full-scale crisis of trade and production, and if Gordon Brown loses the next election, the topography will change.

If you fight, you can't be sure of winning. But if you don't fight, you can be sure of losing.

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