Val Graham was a delegate to Unison Labour Link Forum on 6-7 July and was surprised by the speech which Unison general secretary Dave Prentis made there. Unison Labour Link Forum is the special conference, made up of regional delegates from Unison members who are also Labour Party members, which is supposed to decide Unison policy in relation to the Labour Party. Val spoke to Solidarity about the conference.
I was genuinely surprised by Dave Prentis’s speech. Last year at Labour Link conference he was still pleading with us to be patient with Gordon Brown, and a motion from my region, East Midlands, calling on Labour Link to be more discriminating in our support for Labour MPs and candidates was the only motion there which failed to get passed.
This year Dave Prentis himself said he wanted a more targeted approach, where Unison money for constituency Labour Parties is much more closely linked to Unison policy.
He also said very clearly that he wanted to reinstate the right for motions to be debated at Labour Party conference. He wanted to get other unions' support for a motion to go forward at Labour Party conference this year on the issue of privatisation.
He seemed to be genuinely angry about what the Labour Government is doing to the Health Service, and ministers’ response to him. I think he can see the writing on the wall for the next general election, and is worried about the prospect of a Tory victory. He is also worried about the union coming under pressure from the non-Labour left.
He said that if the Labour Party pursued the same course, and didn’t change policy, it was heading for disaster. He was very keen on the unions having a say in the next Labour manifesto, and said that he could not seem himself as supporting a manifesto that did not put “clear red water” between Labour and the Tories on privatisation.
He said he would ask the unions which have disaffiliated to rejoin the Labour Party and be part of a joint union effort to change policy.
The problem is, he wasn’t more specific about any of these things. It was just a statement of general strategy.
I had my hand up to ask him to be more specific about what he planned to do, but there was time only for a few questions, and I wasn’t called. All the other questions were as if the strategic ideas had gone over people’s heads. In discussion afterwards, it was very difficult to get people thinking about anything other than business as usual.
Dave Prentis seemed to be serious about what he was saying. I can’t see why else he would say it. The Labour Link leadership were not pressing him for a strategy. He wasn’t coming under any pressure from them.
Whether he can achieve what he proposed, and whether he will put a lot of effort into achieving it, I don’t know. I don’t know whether we are in another of those situations where a confrontation is set up, and then, when a few concessions are made, the big issues are allowed to slide.
Personally, however, I would like Unison branches to support what Dave Prentis was saying. Having an approach to Labour MPs and candidates that puts pressure on them to support union policies is a key idea. In my region I will be arguing that we give money to constituency Labour Parties only if they agree to hold events jointly with Unison in support of union policy on privatisation.
The question is, are the union leadership, now they see the writing on the wall in big letters, willing and able to make an effort to restore at least some shred of democracy in the Labour Party. I think we should push them to do it, and we should support them if they do.
There is, however, a lot of demoralisation in the union. Unison has given in over pay this year. My feeling is that if Dave Prentis has this strategy, then he really should be fighting for ordinary members to know about it and understand it. But in Unison circulars since the conference we have heard nothing more about the strategy Dave Prentis outlined.