Unison general secretary Dave Prentis set the Labour Party conference alight on Monday, winning an unexpected standing ovation.
“The millions fighting to protect their pensions look to Labour now more than ever to support them... They will never forgive us if we let them down—and neither will their union.”
As he continued at a union-organised fringe meeting, “We do not expect the Labour Party to be sitting on the fence.”
But not a single Labour shadow minister could be seen in the hall when Prentis spoke.
And leading Labour figures seemed to be more concerned about not being too radical.
Liam Byrne, chair of Labour’s policy review, said that Labour had to fight for a “new centre-ground in British politics”.
He went on, “It’s not a place that the party gets to pick. The centre-ground is where voters say it is.”
Byrne reflected a dominant view that being left wing costs Labour elections. Consequently, Labour leader Ed Miliband is “reforming” the party.
Refounding Labour, a set of constitutional reforms that would cut the unions’ block vote, was largely kicked into the long grass just before the conference.
But delegates voted overwhelmingly for Ed Miliband’s plans to scrap elections to the shadow cabinet—something that Tony Blair repeatedly tried, and failed, to win.
They backed the change by just under 94 percent. This means Miliband can choose his shadow cabinet alone—slashing democracy in the party.
According to Miliband, democracy in the Labour Party is a “huge distraction”.
Conference also gave non-Labour Party members, “supporters”, the right to vote in leadership elections. Once again, this will dilute the influence of the unions within the party.
In some ways the unions seemed to be hugged close. Peter Hain, who chairs Refounding Labour, claimed the party was “proud of our union link”.
But the Labour leadership was less keen to talk about the pensions strikes.
There was anger among union delegates when shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the party “can’t make promises” to reverse any Tory cuts if elected.
“It’s all very well to say we have to be seen as responsible,” Sarah, a PCS union rep, told Socialist Worker. “But people are losing their jobs now. What use is it to them saying you’re not against the cuts?”
And GMB union general secretary Paul Kenny said, “I believe in direct action. If I have to go to jail, I’m prepared to.”
The biggest, and busiest, stalls belonged to the unions. Dave on the Unite stall thought Labour’s position on pensions would inevitably shift.
“They’ll have to come in behind us,” he told Socialist Worker. “I think the genuine Labour delegates see what they’re doing isn’t right.”
There was a newfound confidence at the left wing Labour Representation Committee meeting too.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said Labour “should be standing shoulder to shoulder” with workers striking for their pensions.
Labour MP John McDonnell added, “You can’t stand on the sidelines because you’ll render yourself irrelevant.”
He said he wanted to see Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet “on picket lines right across the country on 30 November”.
But after Ed Balls referred to strikers as walking into a Tory “trap”, it’s an unlikely prospect.