The question of Unison’s relationship to the Labour Party was a running sore through the conference.
The betrayal felt by many delegates could be heard in a variety of debates. Health minister Andrew Burnham and development secretary Hilary Benn were booed and heckled when they spoke at the conference.
To cheers, Nigel Burrage from Norwich community health branch described how government policies had turned the NHS into a “cash cow for privateers”. He said members of his branch want to know why the union is supporting Labour.
A motion from Manchester Community and Mental Health branch called on the health executive to seek a suspension of Unison’s political funding of Labour while there are cuts in the health service. It drew a furious response from some union leaders and delegates.
Karen Jennings, Unison’s head of health, was called to defend the link with Labour.
While declaring her opposition to much of the government’s health agenda, she said that ministers “were listening” to Unison’s demands.
Labour Party member James Huntley, from University Hospital Birmingham, admitted that the government “wasn’t perfect”, but urged the conference to “remember its achievements”.
“Think of the minimum wage,” he said. “Think of all those people who have been lifted out of poverty. Think of the investment in our NHS. Think of the improved services. And think of how bad the Tories are.”
First time delegate Stephen Parkinson from Oxfordshire responded angrily, saying, “I am disgusted that we are paying an affiliation to a party that is tearing the NHS apart.
“I met Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, at the Labour Link conference a couple of years ago. Frankly, I wouldn’t pay her in washers.”
The vote on the motion was narrowly defeated but the chair of the conference refused any possibility of a recount or a card vote, causing anger among delegates – even some who had voted against the motion.