At the last Unite policy conference in 2012, Britain’s biggest union marked a shift to the left, with policies calling for the nationalisation of the banks and the fight for trade union policies in the Labour Party. This leftward shift continued at the 2014 policy conference, reflecting the general growing radicalisation in society. The task now is to turn the radical and militant policies passed into action.
At the last Unite policy conference in 2012, with a new general secretary, Len McCluskey, at the helm, Britain’s biggest union marked a notable and welcome shift to the left. Policies calling for the nationalisation of the banks and the fight for trade union policies in the Labour Party were passed with overwhelming support. This leftward shift has continued at the 2014 policy conference, taking place in Liverpool from 30th June, reflecting the general growing radicalisation in society. The task now is to turn the radical and militant policies passed into action.
Support for public ownership
Motions presented and passed in the opening session on the economy were evidence of the increasingly radicalised mood within Unite and, in turn, in society generally. Building upon the 2012 conference motions that pledged to make nationalisation of the banks a key political demand for the union, the motions this year – all passing unanimously – called for public ownership of the transport and utilities, including the railways, buses, water companies, energy suppliers, prisons, and postal services. Alongside this, a motion was carried calling for Unite to campaign for the national minimum wage, state pensions, and unemployment benefits to be raised to the level of a living wage.
The passing of such motions serves to put into words the increasing anger amongst ordinary people towards the bosses and bankers that is already well known, with a number of polls over the past year indicating that the vast majority – having seen the greed and incompetency of the privatised energy and rail fat-cats, amongst others – support the public ownership of these sectors, alongside the introduction of a living wage and the abolition of zero-hour contracts.
The result is that Britain largest trade union, representing around 1.5 million members across almost every sector and industry, now officially has a programme that includes the nationalisation of many key levers of the economy, including the banks, transport, and utilities. Such a programme marks an important step forward for Unite and the labour movement as a whole. The next step is for these policies to be fought for inside the Labour Party, and for the argument to be made by the leaders of the labour movement in favour of integrating these sectors into a socialist plan of production that puts an end to the capitalist system.
Growth or austerity?
Since the last policy conference, Unite has played an increasingly important role in the fight back against the Tory-led Coalition and their programme of austerity, with initiatives such as “Unite Community” and the People’s Assembly, both designed to create local and national structures that ordinary people can organise through to defend against the government’s attacks and cuts. Over the week, numerous speakers reminded the audience of the campaigning work being organised by Unite over issues such as the hated Bedroom Tax, zero-hour contracts, blacklisting, bogus self-employment, and cuts to public services in general.
Again, this conference saw motions that turned this already established fact of Unite’s leading role in the anti-austerity movement into official union policy. In particular, the main composite motion on “campaigning against austerity” pledged for Unite to “build a broad, active and dynamic campaign for the proper funding of all our services”, to “oppose all spending cuts”, “to support the mobilisation locally and nationally of mass protests”, and to campaign in the Labour Party for such an anti-austerity position.
Such a fighting stance by the largest single trade union in Britain is to be welcomed, and this again reflects the burning desire amongst the vast majority of people for an end to austerity and this Tory-led government.
As with much of the Labour movement, however, there was a great deal of vagueness throughout conference regarding the alternative that the trade unions and the Labour Party should be proposing in place of austerity. The general tone of the motions was for Keynesian style policies of “growth, investment, and jobs”, involving clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance alongside increased public spending and government stimulus. In this sense, the choice presented to conference was a simple one: an alternative between the “ideological” austerity of the nasty Tories and the “common-sense” Keynesianism of growth and government investment.
The real force behind the austerity in Britain is not simply the Tories, but the sick and senile capitalist system that demands austerity for the maintenance of the system. The fact that we are living through a crisis of capitalism was barely mentioned in the motions, conference debate, or fringe meetings. Instead, references were made to the problems of “neoliberalism” and “ideological cuts”, with Len McCluskey again reaffirming his desire for “radical reformism”.
This vagueness on the alternative to austerity ignores the important elephant in the room: the fact that austerity is by no means restricted to Britain, nor is this austerity elsewhere internationally solely the result of “nasty” parties like the Tories. What, then, explains the choice of implementing austerity by social democratic parties in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and now France? The answer is not “ideology”, but the objective reality of the capitalist crisis, which forces all governments either to bend to the needs of capital and carry out cuts, or to break with the anarchy of capitalism and carry out the socialist transformation of society.
“An industrial fight is a political fight”
The debate on the Labour Party highlighted the important contradiction raised above – that austerity policies are not restricted to a Tory government. The Unite Executive’s statement on the union’s political strategy, which was passed in favour of various alternative positions, admitted that “Conference remains concerned at Labour’s overall commitment to austerity,” going on to say that “such [austerity] policies…are made by special advisers with little experience of real life…Labour must make it clear that the cost of solving the crisis should be borne by those who caused it, above all the City of London.”
In this sense, Jennie Formby, Unite’s Political Director, correctly summarised the situation facing the trade unions in stating that, “an industrial fight is a political fight”. The Unite leadership has taken a correct stance on this question, emphasising that the unions must take the fight into the Labour Party, push for the union’s policies in the Party, and demand working class and trade union political representatives in Labour to replace the Blairite careerists that have dominated the Party for too long.
Despite a long debate on the Labour Party, however, Unite’s strategy in relation to the Labour Party remains ambiguous. On the one hand, there were repeated promises throughout the conference by McCluskey that Unite would give their full backing – in terms of human and financial resources – to help Labour win the next election. In addition, the Unite leadership correctly emphasised the need to continue fighting for the union’s policies in the Party. On the other hand, however, there was ambiguity over the union’s future course of action, with the Executive Statement saying that they would “review Unite’s political strategy in the light of the result of the General Election, and the prospects for the development of Labour policy in a progressive direction.”
What we need is clarity. We must not have any illusions in the approach of the current Labour leadership, which is committed to cuts. Of course, we all agree that we must get rid of the Tories and fight for a Labour government at the next election; but the unity in defeating the Tories must not mean burying our heads in the sands and pretending the present party leadership represent the radical alternative that workers and youth require. There is a clear contradiction between the policies that Unite policy conferences have voted for – for the nationalisation of the banks, transport, and utilities, etc. – and the meagre reforms that the Labour leaders are currently offering, such as the promises to temporarily freeze energy prices.
Len McCluskey, in his opening speech, assured Unite delegates that “your union did nothing wrong in Falkirk”. The task now is to ensure that the Falkirk episode is not used as an excuse to abandon the fight to transform the Party. Rather, Falkirk has shown that it is not simply a question of changing a few faces at the top. Unite and the rest of the trade unions need to conduct a concerted struggle at all levels of the Labour Party. The prerequisite for such a struggle is for the trade union leaders to put forward a clear, bold, socialist programme; to argue not for “responsible” capitalism, but for the socialist transformation of society. Armed with such a programme, trade unionists could fight for socialist policies throughout the Labour Party and get rid of all the carpetbaggers whose loyalty currently lies towards the City of London.
Fighting the cuts
The need for a clear socialist programme was felt elsewhere in the debates on how to fight the cuts. For example, one particular motion called for Unite to support Labour councillors in voting against local cuts. In the discussion, several Unite members and Labour councillors argued against the motion, stating that if they didn’t try and balance the budget themselves, the Tories would send in commissioners who would implement cuts in a far more vicious manner.
The motion nevertheless was carried with the support of the Executive. However, what was lacking in the debate was to address the question of why any cuts must be made at all. The motion vaguely called for Unite to “support” councillors against the cuts; but what is needed is for the trade unions – locally and nationally – to be fully backing councillors through a mass campaign of meetings, demonstrations and strikes, in which the argument is made for a socialist alternative to austerity, and this alternative needs to be fought for within the entire labour movement.
Elsewhere, a motion was carried that called for “co-ordinated industrial action to defeat austerity”. Co-ordinated action between the unions is indeed needed, beginning with the 10th July public sector strike – a strike that, Len McCluskey announced to conference, Unite would be joining. The same motion, however, argued that “the necessary level of workplace organisation and confidence does not at present exist” for a General Strike.
It is true that there is a certain frustration in the labour movement. But we must be clear: this is not due to a lack of will to fight amongst rank-and-file trade unionists, but is the result of the failure of the trade union leaders to put forward a fighting strategy that links the industrial struggles against cuts to the political struggle against capitalism.
The isolated, one-day actions seen over the past year have resulted in few concessions – because, with the deep crisis of capitalism, the bosses have nothing to give. In such a situation, the option is either to capitulate and accept the cuts, or to wage a wholesale struggle to transform society along socialist lines. There is no middle ground.
If the confidence to take action does not exist amongst workers, then this must be rebuilt through bold leadership, beginning with a mass campaign in every workplace and community, explaining what is needed. It is the role of the union leaders to inspire with a vision and a programme to fight and change society. With 1.5 million members in almost every industry and sector, Unite, more than any other union, has the power and the responsibility to lead such a campaign.
In any case, the 10th July strikes indicate that the mood to fight still very much exists amongst workers. What is lacking is a strategy and a plan of how to continue escalating the struggle beyond one-day strikes; and again, this means turning the industrial struggle into a political struggle.
Throughout the conference, the fighting credentials of the Unite leadership were consistently promoted, with Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Minister, joking in his speech to conference that “Len has more bite than Luis Suarez”, and with Len ‘Luis’ McCluskey himself stating in his opening speech that the union would be willing to take on the courts and the law where necessary.
The elephant in the room re-emerged, however, in relation to a motion calling for the public ownership of important privately owned companies such as Ineos, which runs the oil refinery in Grangemouth that was threatened with closure by the bosses unless the workers accepted brutal attacks on their terms and conditions. The motion passed, committing Unite to campaigning for the nationalisation of Ineos. But where was this call from the Unite leadership at the time of the Grangemouth dispute? Where were the fighting credentials of the union leaders then?
The conditions demanded by the Ineos bosses were completely accepted by the Unite leaders at the time, despite the strong presence of a highly unionised workforce at the Grangemouth plant, which, given the lead, could have occupied the plant, with the potential for solidarity strikes to be nationally organised by Unite in other parts of the energy industry. The fighting stance argued for at this conference is to be welcomed. But we must ensure that this stance leads to bold, militant action when needed, not simply empty rhetoric every two years from the rostrum.
Socialism the only alternative
The failure to put forward a socialist perspective led to problems in a number of other debates, with the Executive consistently tying themselves in knots over important issues, such as the environment and the European Union. What was lacking in such cases was a clear class position. For example, in order to avoid being either for or against “fracking”, the Executive Statement on this question called instead for a “balanced energy policy” with “rigorous regulation of the industry”; however, no mention was made of the need for all parts of the energy industry – including any potential fracking – to be brought under public ownership and democratic workers’ control, in order to ensure that health, safety, and environmental concerns are addressed. In the end, the Executive motion was defeated in favour of a motion opposing fracking that did raise the question of the public ownership and democratic control of the energy industry.
Similarly, on the question of the EU, the Unite Executive statement that was carried called for Labour to support a referendum on the EU, in which “Unite would… argue for a vote for Britain to stay in the EU… while also campaigning against the neo-liberal agenda being promoted from Brussels.” The position of the labour movement should be against the bosses’ EU and to argue the case for a United Socialist States of Europe – an argument for internationalism and unity on a class basis, in contrast to the EU, which exists for the capitalists to share in their unified exploitation of workers.
The 2014 policy conference marks another important step forward for Unite. The Unite leadership has established a leading position in the labour movement and the fight against austerity; and as Britain’s biggest union – a union that is, despite the efforts of the Blairites, still intrinsically connected to the Labour Party – it has an enormous power and duty to utilise this position in arguing and fighting for militant action and a bold socialist programme. This is the only alternative.
On the Tuesday evening of conference, Socialist Appeal supporters in Unite held a fringe meeting on “The Great Miners Strike, 30 Years On: Lessons for the Labour Movement Today”. John Dunn, Socialist Appeal supporter, ex-miner, and now activist for the Justice for Mineworkers campaign, spoke passionately about the miners’ strike of 1984-85, recounting his own personal experiences of events such as the Battle of Ogreave, and highlighting how the full force of the state was used to crush the miners and carry out the policies of the capitalists and the Thatcher government.
John drew the parallels with today’s situation, where the labour movement is once again under attack from the Tory-led government. As was the case in the 80’s, the problem today – John explained – is the question of leadership: in particular, the lack of a fighting, militant leadership in the labour movement.