Unison conference: Sorcerer Prentis

Alan Stevens attended the conference of the public sector union, Unison

The Unison conference, held over the weekend of June 17-20, went well for general secretary Dave Prentis. He and the NEC were able to constrain left pressure within acceptable limits, whilst giving notice that the heat was going to be turned up on New Labour.

At the local government conference he warned that “All of the public service unions will be working together in the forthcoming year to campaign for decent pay, be they fire, health, local government or teaching.” He added: “Unison will be working closely with our sister unions to get more funding cash from government.” This is very far indeed from the spectre of a ‘general strike’ that ludicrously occupied the imagination of Times journalists a couple of weeks ago. However, more strike action is on the leadership agenda.

Referring to “a growing confidence”, Prentis nevertheless found it necessary to state, “When we threaten action, we must deliver”. This, it seems to me, is an appeal to activists to deliver the rank and file as pawns to be used to further the ambitions of trade union bureaucrats. No doubt, there is some genuine desire to improve the lot of members - but via the corridors of power, wheeler-dealing and brinkmanship, not through empowering the rank and file. Unfortunately, an inexperienced and impatient ‘united left’, no doubt sincere in their intentions, also see this as an easy road to action and doing business for members.

In his subsequent speech to the main conference, Dave Prentis continued in the same vein: “If the local government pay commission is not funded, if the reforms in schools are not funded, if Agenda for change is not funded, then, Mr Blair, we will take strike action again.” But will the sorcerer be able to conjure up mass support? The conference decision to boost the union’s industrial action fund by annual top-ups of one percent of subscription income will be the means to finance this action agenda - the left was pushing for an even bigger action fund. However, experience so far - the ongoing London weighting claim is a good example - is that funding strikes in this way amounts to paying members to stay at home and doing little else.

Stewards will ask for pickets and get a few. There will be some recruiting and a little interest generated. However, most will passively accept the money on offer to stay off work. There will be little active participation in which to learn through the experience of struggle. There will be little winning of hearts and minds to the need to act out of principle. And everyone knows that there has been no further ballot because it would be lost. This is playing at class struggle.

The hot issue at conference was the political fund and the Unison-Labour link. The degree of anger at the government evident in the many motions and the vociferousness of speakers forced Prentis to go on the offensive. The NEC, having ruled many motions out of order and recommended remitting all others not supported by the leadership, had significantly constrained debate in a way that favoured the leadership’s ‘stay as we are, but better’ report. The three alternatives - continue the review process; allow the funding of other candidates; and break the link - enabled Prentis and the NEC to tactically outmanoeuvre a disunited left - all went to the vote and were defeated. The NEC report was carried overwhelmingly.

Dave Prentis is amongst that growing band of general secretaries to declare the aim of winning back the Labour Party - but to what? Some mythical golden era, when Labour and trade union bureaucrats helped to jointly administer capitalism? The general trend is to try and trade at the top - using the membership as cannon fodder on the one hand, and selling them some cobbled up deal on the other. Most of the left get suckered into this top-down bureaucratic dealing - at least on the cannon fodder side - only to then cry sell-out when the deal is done. This is what happened with the national pay claim last year.

Unison has moved left somewhat, but has the membership? Certainly bureaucrats at national and local level have tapped into a mood. But a mood is not enough. There is a democratic deficit here. Delegates elected by less than a 10th of the membership moving and voting on resolutions that most will not ever see; long strung out disputes, maintained only by paying small groups to strike; activists devoting lots of energy and resources to issues where it is easy to get action - any action - whilst tougher, but much more dangerous issues are put on the back-burner.

Does this activate the membership beyond a few individuals? I do not think so. The education, agitation and organisation of the rank and file are almost entirely absent. That role which should be played by a Communist Party lies vacant. A divided and sectional left lacking in strategic vision inadequately squats in the vacuum. A start might be to actually consider the strategic goal of building a united fighting front of the working class. This will require a battle of ideas that engages not only left activists but members too.