By Maria Exall, CWU
Tensions between the Labour Party leaders and the trade unions are being forced centre stage by events. The Labour Government has declared war on public services. They are set to massively increase private sector involvement in the health service. They want an expansion of “independent” Academy schools. They are attacking public sector pensions. They look set to privatise the Post Office. But at this year’s Labour Party conference the four motions submitted by the trade unions to the conference opposed large parts of the Government’s agenda.
The Labour leaders tried to see off the trade union opposition by putting up motions that either undermined commitments to public services or were designed to fend off the unions’ challenge. The ploy was not successful. All the trade union motions were carried.
Before the event the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee voted to take “no position” on any of the policy motions debated throughout the week. They did this because a majority on the NEC may have supported a TGWU motion on Gate Gourmet, supporting solidarity trade union action. A vote to support solidarity action would have been a big blow to the Government.
But — in spite of their claimed support for solidarity action and other policies — the trade union representatives on the NEC voted in favour of taking “no positions” on conference policy debates. Why? A deal was said to have been struck with Amicus over the details of a pensions motion... In reality the trade union leaders always draw back from the brink of a fight with the Government.
The trade unions are prepared to vote against the Government on the floor of conference but not on the party National Executive. Because that would be a much stronger form of opposition to the Government. It would be going too far.
Now New Labour leaders have said they will ignore conference policy. Of course they have! They feel they can do this because they see how weak the trade union leaders are being.
Once we are left asking the question, when will the union leaders fight, when will they try to win the policies they claim to champion?
What were the union motions at conference?
The TGWU’s motion on the Gate Gourmet dispute called for “permitting lawful supportive action at least where there is a close connection between those involved, as permitted by ILO conventions”. It also called for simplifying balloting procedures, protection for strikers from dismissal, barring the replacement of workers in a dispute, the swift implementation of the EU temporary agency workers directive and implementing mandatory equal pay audits.
A watered down composite which condemned what had happened at Gate Gourmet but did not demand improvements in employment law was taken at the same time.
Delegates were told that the TGWU motion would mean a return to the 1970s, to flying pickets and mass walkouts and give the Party bad publicity. Despite the spin, the TGWU motion was passed 70% to 30% with 99% of union vote and nearly 40% of CLP vote. Gate Gourmet workers attending the Conference were given a standing ovation during the debate.
The GMB submitted a motion on pensions, UNISON on the use of the private sector in the NHS, and AMICUS-CWU a motion on the “European social mode” of capitalism, reaffirmaing the manifesto commitment to keep Royal Mail public. All of these motions were counterposed by composite motions manipulated by the Party leadership.
But the union block vote (and the support of a significant number of constituency Labour Parties) meant all the union motions passed. The leadership motions were also defeated, a crucial point, as previously Conferences have passed contradictory motions, letting the leadership off the hook.
Motions from local parties were on housing and equalities. One sucessful composite reffirmed last years Conference vote on the “fourth option” — allowing Councils to build homes without financial disadvantage. A counter composite praising ALMOS etc was overwhelmingly defeated.
On LGB rights the composite motion which passed called on the Government to do its “utmost” to bring in legislation against discrimination in provision of goods and services on grounds of sexuality.
Iraq was not choosen to be debated this year, but this was not necessarily a bad thing. The opportunity to call Blair to account on Iraq was last year and the big four unions halted that. Any vote taken this year would probably have been been seen as a vindication for the Government position.
Despite their equivocation, the trade unions’ promotion of particular policies is likely to be seen as “bad” behaviour and may provoke a New Labour backlash next year. Probably there will be proposals to change Party structures to weaken direct union involvement. It is not clear if the unions will resist.
The case for General Committees (delegate-based govenring bodies) in local parties will need restating in the coming years. The Party Executive forced the leadership to reword part of a party document that implied the GC would be abolished. They still want to get rid of them.
But a third of CLPs do not send people to Conference, and there is evidence that many of the motions submitted by CLPs that do attend were put in after the deadline — on the suggestion of Party officials.
The Labour Against The War fringe meeting was well attended. Houzan Mahmoud from the Organisation of Womens Freedom in Iraq told a different tale of the “resistance” from what the crowd was used to yet was still well received.
The Labour Representation Committee rally was addressed by many trade unionists and left Labour MPs. Though the left’s organising at Conference left a lot to be desired, for the first time the LRC put out a Conference Bulletin.