(NB: This article is by Jack Haslam, emailed to me. We hope to add Jack to our roster of contributors in due course).
You can’t say you were haven’t been warned. Last December, during the row about the Hayden Phillips report on state funding of political parties we warned…that Gordon Brown was telling trade union leaders that he wanted an end to the situation where trade union votes defeated the leadership at Labour Party conference.
Brown now wants to turn that wish into a reality.
Last Sunday afternoon, just before he was crowned leader, Brown put what was presented as a non controversial document on ‘improving’ the policy forum process to the Labour Party NEC. Inquisitive NEC members were reassured by Brown aides that the proposals had been cleared with the leaderships of the major unions via the Trade Union Liaison Organisation. Whether or not that is the case is a moot point; but it has not taken long for the full and radical significance of Brown’s plans to become apparent. By all accounts the NEC did not study the document properly.
In Brown’s speech to the Labour conference that afternoon there was just one main reference to the document. In it Brown said that he wanted labour’s programme to be decided by an OMOV ballot.
By Monday morning the spin doctors had been at work and what was being presented to the media was somewhat different from what the NEC had been told less than 24 hours earlier.
The Today programme on Radio 4 was reporting that the BBC had learnt that ‘Gordon Brown planned proposals that would stop unions shaping policy at Labour’s annual conference’.
The details of the proposal are this: Brown wants to remove the right of both Constituency Labour Parties and Trade Unions to put contemporary motions to Labour conference. Instead, he wants to allow only ‘deliberative debates’, with no votes being taken. The aim of this is to stop trade unions or CLP’s putting up motions which oppose government policy or call for major changes on issues like the trade union laws or privatisation. Brown is in a rush to get these proposals through. A timetable has been been put forward which would mean the changes get put to this year’s conference.
Brown has said he wants to convince the trade unions about these proposals which means he wants to convince the trade union leaders.
But why on earth would the trade union leaders, never mind the trade union rank and file or the Labour activists in the CLP’s, support these proposals?
The Brown camp are presenting the argument that some trade union leaders could be persuaded that the changes would make it politically easier for for Brown to make behind the scenes concessions to them. The argument being that without the media attention on votes at Labour Party conference Brown would’nt have to make a point of facing down trade union ‘demands’. None of the union leaders can possibly for one moment actaually believe that line. The issue is : are they so demoralised, lacking in political self belief and plain desperate that they will do anything for Brown in the hope of getting a few crumbs in return? Maybe, but whether or not they can take their unions with them – and in particular the union delegations to the Labour Party conference is another matter.
UNISON is a cause for worry. The existing paper policy of the UNISON Labour Link rules out any possibility of the union supporting Brown. However, the top levels of the UNISON political structure are “rotten to the core”, and “completely New Labour”, as one UNISON einsider put it. This makes the elections that are taking place now in the Labour link organisation more important than ever.
It is difficult to assess what will happen in the AMICUS section of UNITE , and it is even harder to identify what mechanisms of rank and file control could be brought into play in the timescale available, either. But the key to UNITE – and almost certainly to what the other major unions do, is the TGWU section. The union is due to hold its Biennial Delegate Conference next week and a clear lead from the union in opposition to Brown’s plans would help galvanise trade union opposition.
The Communication Workers Union could also provide a vital impetus to the struggle against Brown’s plans to abolish Labour Conference. This year’s conference could become a vitally important platform for demonstrating movement’s support for the postal workers in their struggle against Royal Mail. Taking the strike into the Labour Party will certainly help make it more difficult for brown to get his way on constitutional changes.
It is also vitally important to get over the idea that that this is an attack on the rights of the constituencies as well as the trade unions. The unions are the target of Brown’s campaign in the press, but the CLP’s too would be denied the right to put motions to conference. It is the rights of both that are in the firing line.
We need to build a broad campaign of labour movement opposition to these proposals in both the unions and the CLP’s . John McDonnell MP has talked of the need to immediately launch such a campaign. He is dead right.
But it is important that the campaign is not simply defensive. We need to raise the right of conference to win back a say over policy, by pressing for the right of CLP’s and affiliates to sunmit motions to amend Policy Forum documents and other proposals from the NEC, and for contemporary motions to be taken as amending Policy Forum documents. If we campaign about what is wrong with the policy Forum process and the sham of OMOV ‘take it or leave it’ ballots and to reverse the criminal damage that ‘New’ Labour has done to the political labour movement, we will be in a better place to make sure Brown does not get any of his anti-working class proposals through, if he is forced back on the issue of motions to conference. Just as importantly, unless the unions and CLP’s fight to regain their rights (and to reassert the rights of conference). Just as importantly, the unions and CLP’s must fight to regain their rights and to reassert the sovereignty of Conference: otherwise Brown will be able to press forward with undermining conference and increasing the use of OMV (“One Member One Vote”) plebicides, as are already allowed for under the existing rules.