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Major union threatens to break from Labour

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Issue 1700

Historic vote at communication workers’ conference

Major union threatens to break from Labour

Charlie Kimber reports from Bournemouth

BRITAIN’S SIXTH biggest trade union, the 300,000-strong Communication Workers Union, delivered a crushing verdict on New Labour this week. Delegates at the union’s annual conference in Bournemouth voted to withdraw “all financial and moral support to the Labour Party” if the government privatises any part of the postal industry.

The vote threatening a break from Labour was carried by a 58 to 42 percent margin after a long and passionate debate. The following day delegates underlined their feelings towards the government by voting overwhelmingly against giving more money to the Labour Party. The decision will echo through the whole labour and trade union movement.

It is a historic move from a union whose leaders have been at the centre of the New Labour project, and which has long been seen as rock solid pro-Labour. A key speech in the debate came from Darren Pilling of the union’s Cheshire and Mersey branch. Darren is a Labour councillor and continues to be a Labour supporter.

But he told delegates, “There are certain fundamentals you can’t let go. Privatisation is one of them. It would not be treachery for us to break from Labour. It would be treachery for a Labour government to privatise the Post Office.”

The motion was moved and seconded by two Scottish delegates who have 30 years of Labour membership between them. Willie Marshall told the conference, “I used to be an active member of the Labour Party. I enthusiastically took up the union’s ‘Pound for Labour’ campaign and received a gold badge for my work. That was all in the hope of electing a Labour government. I encouraged people to join to stop the Tory privatisation plans. Now we have that government and the threats, far from going away, are looming over us. I’m in the political wilderness now. I couldn’t renew my membership after the way New Labour has behaved. If it comes to a strike over privatisation, why should we pay for the enemy’s weapons? It’s time to draw a line.”

Joe Baxter, also from Scotland, told delegates, “We have to demonstrate how serious we are. New Labour part-privatised the Post Office catering section, Quadrant, and our response was pathetic. “Now they’re talking about shareholding swaps with private companies. It’s time to stick up two fingers to New Labour.”

Early in the debate the union’s general secretary, Derek Hodgson, tried to crush any support for the motion. He said that the government had always “consulted and liaised with us”. He said he was appalled that the motion was even on the agenda.

Some delegates from the union’s traditional left also argued against any threat to break from Labour. Pete Keenlyside from Greater Manchester said he disagreed with much of what Hodgson said, but that this was not the moment to break from Labour: “We know how bad Labour is. We twigged that long ago. The question is, what do we do about it?”

Steve Bell from South Wales also argued against the motion, saying that it would be more effective to stay and fight to win, for example, Ken Livingstone’s readmission to the Labour Party. But even these arguments coming from some left wing delegates did not win the debate.

Pete Boswell from Oxford said, “If we don’t support this motion then we don’t have a political alternative when Labour comes for us. Shall we slap them in the face with a piece of wet celery? I’m a long term Labour member, but I can feel the mood out there. Four weeks ago I was canvassing for the local elections. You try explaining to a 70 year old pensioner why she’s only got 75p a week rise. Our union gave 483,000 to Labour last year. Sycophantically creeping hasn’t got us anywhere. I’m a member of the Labour Party and I don’t trust them.”

Clive Walden from Birmingham said, “Labour councils are privatising everything in sight. They are selling off air traffic control. That’s how safe our public services are in their hands.”

Post Office privatisation is not an isolated example. The Labour Party was formed because workers didn’t believe they were getting proper representation. Today many workers have that same feeling about the Labour Party itself. Jason White from Huddersfield argued, “The Labour government that was elected with such high hopes has proceeded with Tory policies-privatisation, leaving pensioners in poverty, war in Yugoslavia, scapegoating refugees. Ken Livingstone broke with Labour and he beat the government. The Scottish Socialist Party and the London Socialist Alliance have done well in elections. There are many workers asking about an alternative to Labour, and we have to shape that debate.”

On a show of hands the motion was clearly passed. But it was such an important issue that the chair called a card vote-where delegates from each union branch cast votes in proportion to the number of union members in that branch. If union leaders were hoping that this procedure would allow their intense lobbying of delegates to reverse the show of hands result, they were soon disappointed.

The motion was carried by 148,000 to 107,000 votes. As the result was announced there was a stunned silence in the hall. Everyone there knew this was a major step-a crucial trade union talking of a break from Labour.

Delegates and general secretary back defence of asylum seekers

THE disenchantment with Labour is coming firmly from the left. It is coming from active trade unionists and people proud to call themselves socialists who see Labour trampling on working class interests. One indication of that was an earlier debate in the conference on fascism and racism.

It showed people bitterly angry about Labour following Tory rhetoric over asylum seekers. Jane Loftus from Merseyside argued, “Jack Straw and others are scapegoating refugees. They are attacking people who should be welcome here. The disgusting press coverage leads to attacks on black people and anyone who is perceived as different. It’s a filthy headline one day, acid in the face the next. We need to go on to the streets to protest at fascism and also about the attacks on refugees.”

Fran Choules from south west England had his emergency motion defending asylum seekers ruled out of order. So he boldly made the speech for it in another related debate.

“The Tories are trying to make political capital by appealing to the base instincts of little Englander fascists. They use derogatory terms such as ‘benefit abusers’ as a blanket reference for all asylum seekers. Even senior members of the so called Labour government have jumped on the hysterical rhetoric bandwagon. This covert racist propaganda plays directly into the hands of the fascist groups. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, says, ‘The asylum seeker issue has been great for us. This issue legitimises us.’ Desperate people come to this country to escape persecution, political or otherwise. Yet there are xenophobic elements who would incarcerate them and return them to face a pernicious regime, or even death. The union should support the statement [defending asylum seekers] launched from the National Union of Journalists conference. I want our general secretary to put his name to it.”

All the speeches defending asylum seekers won loud applause. Leading members of the union, including general secretary Derek Hodgson, signed the statement in defence of asylum seekers.

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