Socialist Worker

The union leaders avoid the issues

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 1769

'THE WHOLE conference has been an exercise in avoiding debates. 'It's incredible that we have avoided the issue over public services and have not taken a position on Star Wars.'

That is what Margaret Hanniford, a constituency delegate at the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week, told Socialist Worker. Labour Party leaders pushed the line that it would be divisive and unhelpful to have splits and rows 'at this time of national unity'. They have only been able to get away with it because of the collaboration of most union leaders.

This meant that the deep bitterness over privatisation and other matters did not properly surface. Union leaders could have pointed out that none of the privatisation plans have been dropped, and opposition must continue.

Instead most of them took part in a shoddy compromise. A motion on public services was stitched together after a five-hour meeting between union leaders and party officials. It conceded a 'review' of the 'Best Value' regulations which press home privatisation in local government.

But there are no guarantees about who will do the reviewing or what will happen to the results. The motion was so weak that the seconder made a speech supporting Public-Private Partnership projects (such as the London Underground privatisation plan).

The big UNISON and TGWU unions accepted the compromise. Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, made a speech defending public services, but then said he was for maintaining dialogue with ministers 'to protect members facing privatisation'.

GMB leader John Edmonds said that his union was refusing to vote for the motion. He said that the review of Best Value was 'a device to alleviate the government's policy problems rather than alleviate the problems of Britain's public services'. Incredibly Edmonds's speech was attacked by Roger Lyons of the MSF union, who said, 'People who do not support our motion have no solutions.' Earlier transport secretary Stephen Byers, education secretary Estelle Morris and health secretary Alan Milburn went on stage to take questions on public services-many of them planted from 'safe' delegates.

This manoeuvre enables ministers to speak for some 90 minutes before a debate, a huge opportunity to dominate discussion.

The questions are asked in groups to avoid direct confrontation. However, there were embarrassing moments for Morris, Milburn and Byers. When a delegate from the ASLEF rail union called for the renationalisation of Railtrack he won huge cheers from the floor.

A straightforward question asking for examples of school and hospital outsourcing that had proved effective caused great consternation for the panel. As John Edmonds told a fringe meeting later that day, 'These three top ministers could only come up with one lame example of a possible successful outsourcing. Every person in this room could think of dozens of unsuccessful privatisation projects.'

It is scandalous that union leaders backed away from an open fight to defend public services. Conference motions may not change government policy, but they can show how isolated the hardline Blairites have become and give a boost to people prepared to fight privatisation.

UNISON and the GMB have both cancelled anti-privatisation advertising campaigns because of the 'special circumstances' after the World Trade Centre suicide attacks.

However, it will not always be so easy for Labour's leaders. A packed meeting of over 400 people on Monday night cheered calls for a campaign to defend public services. The pressure over privatisation is still very much on both New Labour and the union leaders.

Backing down on union rights

UNION LEADERS backed off again over rights at work. They proposed a motion calling for further reforms to the anti-union laws. Tony Dubbins from the GPMU print union said he wanted small firms to be brought within the laws covering union recognition and other changes. Barry Camfield from the TGWU pointed out that 'the Tories passed eight rounds of anti-union laws, and the simple truth is that most of those laws still remain'.

He pointed to the example of workers at Friction Dynamics in North Wales who have been sacked for striking. Because they are deemed to have been taking action for more than eight weeks, they have no protection under the law. Disgracefully Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, opposed the motion. She said it would 'pre-empt a review carried out with the other social partners'-she meant bosses.

She proposed the motion be 'remitted' for consideration by the executive, which means it will be forgotten. Dubbins agreed.

More attacks on democracy

THE CONFERENCE signalled a new low in lack of democracy. Before New Labour, unions and constituencies could put motions for debate to conference. If they received enough support the delegates debated them. Under the latest rules, the only way subjects not supported by the leadership can be debated is through a 'contemporary motion'.

This has to be about a topic which is not in another document and refers to events since July (the National Policy Forum meeting). Seventeen motions condemning Bush's Star Wars project were barred from the conference because they were 'not deemed to be contemporary'.

Some 25 motions condemning privatisation of public services were also not allowed on the agenda. National executive committee member Ann Black wrote last week, 'Because assent will be taken as acceptance of every word, delegates will find they have supported increasing selective education through better funded specialist schools and faith-based segregation, extending PFI from hospitals into primary and social care, putting Britain in the front line of National Missile Defence, and removing more than 30,000 failed asylum seekers and their dependents in 2003-4 regardless of the merits of their cases.

'The only way to register dissent is to refer back the whole document. This means voting against full employment, more nursery places, ending child poverty and raising the minimum wage.'

'THERE ARE lots of arguments among the delegations about whether we should have backed off to avoid rows. With lots of jobs going and privatisation going ahead I think the unions have to speak out more. But that view was in a minority this week.'

'You're not coming'

SOCIALIST WORKER was not allowed press credentials for the conference, the third time this has happened in the last four years. Given that desperate efforts were being made to fill the hall by offering special passes to members and councillors, the usual excuse that there was 'no room' for us could not be trotted out.

Instead the press office simply said, 'You're not coming,' and seemed shocked that Socialist Worker had ever been allowed into the conference. As usual, Tory papers like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail were welcomed in.

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Article information

Mon 1 Oct 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1769
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