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Unite: Firmly on the Left

Unite’s Policy Conference, meeting this week in Manchester, is its first since the amalgamation of the TGWU and Amicus. Although the media present Unite under the leadership of Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, and especially in the context of the British Airways dispute, as part of the Awkward Squad, this is the first occasion when it can adopt policies which come from the grassroots and are approved by rank & file delegates.

Unite does indeed have plenty of Left roots from its constituent parts like the TGWU, TASS, ASTMS, the print unions and the AEU left, but Tony & Derek’s fore-runners also include important right-wing Labour figures from the recent past: Ken Jackson, Bill Jordan, and Gavin Laird of the AEU and let us not forget Eric Hammond and Frank Chapple of EETPU. And yet their heritage has been almost invisible this week.

Firstly, there has been little controversy of any sort: not between left and right, nor between TGWU and Amicus traditions, nor even between rival candidates for the General Secretaryship. Len McCluskey, at his campaign fringe meting, was at pains to point out that other candidates for the General Secretaryship were his rivals not his enemies, and that he wanted a comradely debate in people listened to all the candidates. In an eloquent and passionate speech, he explained how he wanted to unite the different traditions in the new union, and fashion a vibrant democracy in which lay activists can shape its destiny.

But this unity was in no way apolitical, not at all the descent into syndicalism that has been the feature of recent disillusionment with New Labour in Left union circles. This was a unity rooted firmly in the politics of the Labour Left. Take, for example, the two most contentious policy debates, on Afghanistan and on Trident:

On Afghanistan, Tony Woodley had already, in his opening speech at the conference, in the context of welcoming the fact that some Labour leadership candidates had “finally found their voice on the Iraq war,” said that it was “time to cut our losses and get out of Afghanistan too.” When it came to the motion calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, it was carried by a margin of about four to one, against an opposition that was at pains to distinguish Afghanistan from Iraq.

Trident was bound to be a more contentious debate in a union with so many members working in defence industries. Sure enough, the Aerospace & Shipbuilding National Industrial Sector committee put down a motion supporting multi-lateral disarmament but backing a submarine-based replacement for Trident. There were also a number of composited anti-Trident pro-CND motions which were composited. However, the Executive also produced a statement which Tony Woodley said was designed to maintain the unity of the conference but which others said was a fudge.

It was indeed a masterpiece of textual craftsmanship: pro-peace & disarmament and pro-diversification in the defence industry, anti-Trident replacement, and opposed to spending money on weapons of mass destruction. It described nuclear weapons as “militarily useless”. There was more than enough in it to justify an affiliation to CND. However, it also contained a commitment to “support our members and their employment” which could be interpreted as supporting the maintenance (but not use) of existing Trident missiles.

The Executive statement was carried, clearly but not overwhelmingly. The multi-lateral motion was remitted, with the movers arguing it didn’t contradict the executive statement which it clearly did. Had it been voted upon, it would, I suspect, not have received any significant support in the face of the executive’s opposition. Once the executive statement was carried, the anti-Trident composite was remitted.   Almost the entire debate was therefore situated leftwards of somewhere within the range occupied by Compass.

On other issues, positions that were regarded as beyond the pale by the last Labour Government were carried almost unanimously: in support of the People’s Charter; for repeal of anti-union laws and the creation of a framework of positive rights along the lines of the Trade Union Freedom bill including the right to take solidarity action; in support of the Working Time directive; and on Palestine – in favour of immediate sanctions against Israel, divestment and support for a range of initiatives including for the Viva Palestina convoy itself.

Perhaps the most important indication of Unite’s political positioning is the Executive statement on Unite and the Labour Party:

The Labour Party affiliated unions united, together with the progressive CLPs, can achieve real change at Party Conference – not so if we act alone. New policy must have a greater relevance to working people and their trade unions. In the coming period we must ensure that Labour’s policies have a clear and unequivocal commitment to a new framework of trade union and employment rights, including the repeal of the laws brought in by the last Conservative government which have been on the Statue Book for, in some cases, 30 years. This is the strategic approach to Labour Party policy that ensures individual MPs have no choice over support for trade unions rights. It is the Executive’s intention that it will be the policy of the party.

In relation to the selection of Labour Parliamentary candidates, Unite propose to establish a new unified panel of candidates, all of whom, will have to commit to support Unite policy including repeal of the anti-union laws.

The Right may have been invisible this week but it would be foolish to believe that they have given up. John Spellar, MP for Warley and former Political Officer of the EETPU, for example, is sure to continue to take a keen interest in all these developments. Perhaps he is content to let the Left win back some ground on certain issues: there are significant differences between Blairite business-centred, middle-class oriented policies and the socially conservative workerism of ‘Labour First’, the political machine which routinely opposes Left slates in the constituency parties. Spellar’s own nomination for Ed Balls in the Leadership contest is perhaps an indication of a willingness to reverse Blairite policy in some areas. Watch this space!

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