THE ANNUAL conference of Unison, Britain’s biggest union, last week showed that the disillusion with Blair and New Labour runs very deep.
Unison has over 1.3 million members, working in the NHS, local government, colleges, schools and the electricity, gas and water industries.
Its members are part of the backbone of the trade union movement and are the sort of people who have traditionally turned out to work for a Labour vote at elections.
What these people think is a very good indicator of a wider mood among workers.
The conference last week called for immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and threatened strike action over pensions.
“It was a very left conference overall,” says John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets Unison. “The whole tone was in conflict with Tony Blair.”
Dave Prentis, the union’s general secretary, started the conference with a speech that attacked the government over a range of issues.
He said, “I am not New Labour, I am not a Blairite.
“We will not keep our heads down and gobs shut for Labour, if this government continues to put forward right wing policies. We will not sit back and watch our pension schemes being dismantled. We will take action—if necessary, industrial action.”
He challenged the government’s rhetoric on “choice” in the public services.
“What do they mean by choice? Schools choosing their pupils. Flagship hospitals choosing their patients. Cream-skimming those that bring in the most cash—that are the most profitable.
“Where is the choice for the most vulnerable? Choice based on right wing principles is the denial of choice for our poorest communities and we will oppose it.”
He called on the government to make some new choices based on “humility, not arrogance. Peace, not war. Public, not private.”
He said that Unison was working with Amicus, the GMB and the TGWU to push for a “radical manifesto” for a third term of Labour government.
However, Prentis and the majority of the Unison executive opposed a high-profile motion, moved by the left, calling for the resignation of Tony Blair.
In a heated and tense debate, delegates spoke of their bitterness at New Labour over Iraq, foundation hospitals, top-up fees and other betrayals.
Jackie Lewis, a Labour Party member from Lambeth, moved the motion against Blair. “We need to change direction,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to tell the Labour Party something their other friends won’t tell them.”
Jim Board from Doncaster said the prime minister’s lies over Iraq had lost him the trust of the people. “You cannot change the direction of policy without changing the source of that policy,” he added.
In response Prentis accused those calling for Blair’s resignation of “self-indulgent personality politics”. He insisted that passing the motion would damage Unison’s credibility within Labour.
The motion was eventually lost, with around 20 percent of the conference voting for it.
But Blair should take little comfort from that.
Not one speaker, either for or against the motion, could bring themselves to defend Blair or his record.
What defeated the motion was many delegates’ fears of “going out on a limb” and publicly saying what many think.
Other delegates were persuaded that attacking Blair might assist a possible Tory revival. In fact it is Blair’s policies that are causing the disillusion which could open the door to the Tories.
Unison’s leaders must be pushed to turn words into action and to put workers’ interests before loyalty to the government.
Politics in the workplace
Full support for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq
THE UNION executive backed a motion condemning the war in Iraq and calling for an immediate end to the occupation of the country.
Unison’s executive had initially sponsored an amendment seeking to remove the word “immediately” from the motion. But the amendment was withdrawn and the stronger version of the policy passed.
Another key debate revolved around the continuing existence of the union’s political fund.
The Tory anti-union laws, which Labour has maintained, insist that unions have to ballot members over their political fund every ten years.
The conference agreed to campaign for a yes vote in the ballot. But the key arguments in the debate were based on the union’s need for a political voice, rather than the need for ties to Labour.
Speakers from Unison’s United Left, which brings together left delegates, led the debate calling for a yes vote. These were the same speakers who moved the motion calling for Blair to go.
The United Left group is also campaigning to democratise the union’s political fund by opening it up to candidates outside the Labour Party.
The conference discussed its anti-fascist strategy. Delegates from many areas spoke about their practical experiences of campaigning against the British National Party for the 10 June elections.
An amendment calling on the union to continue working with Unite Against Fascism was passed.
The conference fringe meetings were big, busy and lively. Delegates discussed many of the concrete issues faced by members over New Labour’s “modernisation” drive in public services.
Many delegates expressed their contempt over the government’s latest local government pay offer of 9 percent over three years.
They vowed to campaign to reject the offer and ballot for strike action. A Respect fringe meeting addressed by John Rees attracted some 100 people. Similar numbers came to a Stop the War fringe meeting.