Socialist Worker

Tension with New Labour

Issue No. 1857

THE MOOD at Unison conference (see here) was subdued much of the time, but there were moments when the real feeling came to the surface. This was particularly true when the union leadership argued against motions that were more acutely critical of the government.

The national executive argued against a motion attacking the 1 percent rise in national insurance and calling for raising taxes on the rich. The conference exploded into cheers when two delegates took on their arguments. Karen Reissmann from Manchester Community Health branch said, 'National insurance is an unfair tax that discriminates against the poor and discriminates against the average worker.

'The Labour government had a choice - taxing the rich or taxing ordinary workers and it has chosen to tax us.' Adrian O'Malley from Wakefield also got massive applause when he said, 'An NHS worker got a 1 percent increase in national insurance, add to that 3 percent inflation and a 3.22 percent pay rise and what do you have? A pay cut. 'This union should be fighting for wealth distribution, not for pay cuts for working class people.'

The amendment was overwhelmingly carried, against the advice of the national executive. The leadership were determined to stop any discussion about the union having one political fund where members could decide democratically who the money went to. Unison has two separate political funds.

The General Political Fund is used for broad political campaigning but cannot fund political parties or election candidates.

A separate Affiliated Political Fund, also called the Labour link, gives funds only to Labour. Union members can pay into either, both or neither of the political funds. Around 570,000 Unison members out of 1.3 million pay into the Affiliated Political Fund.

It has its own structures and conferences. Only Unison members who are also individual members of the Labour Party can hold positions in it, or be candidates for key regional and national bodies.

The United Left organisation in Unison, which includes many Labour Party members, has argued for the union to have a single political fund. It argues that this fund should be democratised so the union's members decide how the money is spent.

This could mean giving money to Labour, but also backing some candidates not in Labour - such as Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections or socialists standing against Labour.

But Unison's leaders ruled out of order any motions raising it. They claimed they had legal advice that 'no change can be made to the structure of the Affiliated Political Fund without its prior agreement'. This means that Unison conference cannot change the way the fund works unless New Labour agrees to it first!

The result was to severely restrict the debate in a way that angered many delegates. These included Dorothy Macedo, who chairs the Affiliated Political Fund in London.

She told the conference, 'People are frustrated that we haven't got clear votes today on the various options that could have been debated.' And she warned the union's leaders that bureaucratic manoeuvres could not bury the issue as 'this debate is taking place in society, in the workplaces.'

Pay agenda 'worrying'

'SHAMEFUL' AND 'a danger to the NHS'. That is how former Labour health secretary Frank Dobson described the government's policy on foundation hospitals at a fringe meeting at the conference. Delegates had earlier unanimously passed a motion condemning the government's plans for the elite hospitals.

Dobson argued that foundation hospitals were 'part of a drive to reintroduce competition into the NHS and the greater and greater involvement of the private sector running more of the health service'. He said the government was 'out of touch' with public opinion because it was 'ideologically obsessed with the private sector and the market'. In the discussion Karen Jennings, Unison's head of health, intervened with a strong outburst against the whole concept of foundation hospitals.

She urged people 'not to swallow Tony Blair's propaganda'. And she also agreed with a delegate who argued that the government's pay modernisation package, Agenda for Change, was connected to foundation hospitals.

'It seems the government does want pay flexibility and it is really worrying what they are doing,' she said. This is despite the fact that she was a key figure in the union who argued for acceptance of Agenda for Change in a recent Unison ballot.

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Article information

Sat 28 Jun 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1857
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