The Unison union national conference, held in Bournemouth last week, was marked by a left mood among delegates and warnings addressed to New Labour.
The union’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, told delegates, “I have a message, not to Tony Blair, but to those waiting in the wings. Do not take my union’s support for granted. You’ll have to earn it.”
He went on to warn that “Labour will not be re-elected unless it changes direction, restores trust, reconnects with its core votes. And neither will it deserve to be.”
There was pressure on the union’s leadership over pensions. Earlier last week, at the union’s local government conference, delegates had come within a whisker of passing a left wing motion to reignite industrial action over pensions.
At the national conference for the whole union, Prentis spoke glowingly about the one-day strike over local government pensions on 28 March.
Following that strike, industrial action was suspended for negotiations.
The union is currently seeking a judicial review into the government’s plan to scrap the rule of 85, which allows some local government workers to retire at 60 with 25 years service. But, Prentis said, if the judicial review fails, “we will ballot again for industrial action”.
Health delegates pointed out that a seperate pensions deal struck with the government was also unravelling.
A motion from North of Tyne Health, which was passed by delegates, pointed to a “1.6 percent shortfall between the amount required to secure lifetime protection for existing scheme members and the amount being provided to the NHS by the treasury”.
Another big issue was the government’s attacks on the health service. However, the leadership sought to prevent discussion of key motions on the Keep Our NHS Public campaign.
Some 650 signatures were collected on a petition calling for a national demonstration to defend the NHS. Such was the mood at the conference, that Prentis felt forced to come down from the platform to receive the petition from delegates.
There was a contradiction between the union leadership’s support for campaigns over general political questions and their unwillingness to lead a major confrontation against a Labour government over the core issues faced by union members.
This creates a space in which the left can organise and lead battles. A large turnout and high level of organisation from the Unison United Left group was one positive sign.
Several fringe meetings were well attended. They included a 350-strong Stop the War meeting with Tony Benn and union deputy general secretary Keith Sonnet.
Some 150 delegates attended a Respect fringe meeting, which was notable for the number of former Labour Party members.
A Defend Council Housing meeting saw 125 and some 70 people attended a Campaign Against Climate Change meeting.
The conference also passed an emergency motion against the fascist British National Party and an emergency motion submitted by Newham local government branch condemning the police anti-terrorism raid in Forest Gate.