Socialist Worker

Unison conference — rocky road for the right wing

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 1958

Unison's national delegate conference, held in Glasgow last week, saw the union commit itself to a series of tough policies over privatisation, pensions and opposition to the Labour government’s domestic agenda.

The tone was set by general secretary Dave Prentis in his surprisingly left wing opening address.

Prentis started by ritually welcoming Labour’s third term in government—but immediately added, “Let’s hope it’s a bit better than the second.”

He then proceeded to lambast pretty much every aspect of the government’s “resolutely New Labour” programme.

Prentis also attacked the government’s rightwards lurch on crime, ID cards and anti-social behaviour.

This speech opened the gates to wider anger directed at Labour from the conference floor.

This was starkly demonstrated during a key debate on Unison’s strategy for challenging New Labour’s third term plans. An amendment from Yorkshire and Humberside region, supported by the union’s executive, sought to add a paragraph to the motion lavishing praise on the so called Warwick agreement between Labour and the unions.

However delegate John McLoughlin caught the mood of the conference by opposing the amendment. Citing Prentis’s speech, he noted that Labour’s legislative plans had failed to deliver on a single one of the Warwick promises.

The pro-Warwick amendment was rejected on a card vote by 540,000 to 516,000.

Unison’s Labour loyalist right became the focus for anger later on in the same debate. Somerset County branch had proposed an amendment calling on the union’s Labour Link to “publish regularly the voting record of the Unison group of MPs” in its newsletters and magazines.

To the astonishment of many delegates, the executive opposed this amendment, arguing that publishing voting records — information already in the public domain — would damage the union’s relationship with its MPs.

This was too much even for the union’s Labour supporting activists, who resoundingly passed the amendment.

This represented a double humiliation for the union’s right wing. Sources say a group of senior full-time officials later complained to Prentis that his speech had been too left wing.

These tensions between the Unison leadership’s visceral loyalty to Labour and its members’ anger at the government’s programme of privatisation and pension cuts can only heighten over the coming months.

At a lively 100-strong fringe meeting of Unison’s United Left grouping of left wing activists, John McDermott, recently elected to the union’s national executive, spoke of the vital need for Unison activists to build up a rank and file network.

He also warned that despite Prentis’s fighting talk over pensions, senior officers within Unison were already looking for ways to cut a deal with the government.

The United Left meeting also heard from Vince Butler, branch treasurer of Unison’s Coventry local government branch, about the branch’s dispute with Coventry council over an imposed “single status” deal.

Vince Butler urged trade unionists to attend a rally for Coventry council workers on Saturday 23 July, United Reformed Church, Warwick Road.

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Sat 2 Jul 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1958
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