By a Labour Party Conference delegate
DESPITE the bureaucratic exclusion, for the first time ever, of a majority of resolutions from Constituency Labour Parties, this year’s Labour Party conference has surpassed last year’s record by inflicting five significant defeats on the government.
On Thursday, the party’s Conference Arrangements Committee announced it was ruling out dozens of resolutions on issues including Iraq, council housing, the replacement of Trident, the anti-trade union laws, school admissions, Thames Water and Venezuela on the grounds that they were not “contemporary”. Despite this explosion of New Labour control-freakery, the major votes at conference have not gone the Blairites' way.
The 2004 conference saw the leadership defeated on railway renationalisation. Last year, the unions and in some case a majority of constituency delegates voted to defeat the government on the right to solidarity action, public sector pensions, housing, the NHS and public services. Moreover, the Blairites only narrowly avoided a defeat on solidarity action at the party National Executive Committee. This year, by Wednesday evening, the Blairites had been defeated on agency workers’ rights, the basic state pension, council housing and the NHS, and were facing another defeat on corporate manslaughter.
The Amicus/CWU resolution calling for agency workers to receive full employment rights from day one was clearly carried on a show of hands, and a pro-government motion which avoided introducing these rights into law defeated. A motion from the GMB calling for the “expediting” of the restoration of the link between the basic state pension and earnings, and the raising of pensions to £114 a week was passed in the same way.
Then, on a card vote, a composite from left-wing CLPs reaffirming party policy for the “fourth option” of publicly-funded council housing was carried with about 65% of the vote, overwhelmingly in the union section and narrowly among the constituencies. A right-wing motion on the issue was withdrawn in favour of an NEC statement intended to qualify the government’s defeat, which unfortunately also passed.
There was bad news for the left when, on Wednesday morning, the party National Executive Committee voted by a majority of one to propose a compromise statement on the NHS debate on Wednesday afternoon. Right-wing unions USDAW and Community voted with the various Blairite placemen to give the leadership its majority.
Despite this, conference voted by a large majority to pass Unison’s resolution calling for a “change of direction” in government policy on the NHS, including no extension of payment by results, no further privatisation or outsourcing without consultation throughout the party and the health unions and a reaffirmation of the founding principles of the health service. The NEC resolution attempting to gloss over this defeat went to a card vote, the result of which was not due to be announced until after Solidarity went to press, but it looked as if the leadership had been defeated there too.
The leadership is also likely to be defeated on a TGWU motion on corporate manslaughter.
Every defeat for the government at Labour Party conference is a blow against Blairism and should be welcomed. Nonetheless, these blows will have limited impact if the unions continue to pull their punches by settling for passing resolutions and refusing to struggle against the Blairite apparatus that refuses to carry them out. It is all very well to pass motions on pensions and the NHS - but why is Unison giving every sign of demobilising the current NHS logistics strike, just as it caved in over public sector pensions earlier this year?
And why are the union leaders desperately looking for ways to support Gordon Brown that can be made to appear acceptable to their members, rather than supporting the one candidate for Labour leader, John McDonnell, pledged to stand up for most unions’ policy on all the issues which have proved controversial this year?
A fringe meeting organised by the “Big Four” of Unison, TGWU, GMB and Amicus on Wednesday morning gave a pretty clear indication of where the leadership of our unions is at politically. For the last four years, the Big Four have organised meetings like this; this year, they were joined by Billy Hayes of the CWU under the title “A new agenda for a new leader”.
All the general secretaries who spoke, plus Richard Ascough of the GMB Southern Region filling in for Paul Kenny, made good points about Labour Party policy - but refused to be drawn on who they would be supporting for leader, arguing that it was a question of “policies not personalities”. It is clear, in other words, that they will be supporting Gordon Brown or some other Blairite pretender, unless their rank-and-file insist otherwise.
For socialists, the Labour Party conference decisions are only important as part of a campaign for the unions to fight - in industry, in politics and in the first place for a Labour leader loyal to the labour movement.