From 11 to 15 July the Unite the Union policy conference is meeting in Brighton. The conference of Britain’s largest trade union comes at a critical time for developments in the Labour party and defending Jeremy Corbyn against the Blairite coup attempt should be top of delegates’ agenda. Important questions of economic protectionism and Trident will also be discussed this week. Above all it will be important for Unite to come out with a fighting programme of radical policy with a clear strategy to bring down the Tories and replace them in power with a genuinely socialist government. We need an end to austerity, and end to capitalism, and a fundamental socialist transformation of society.
This is what the Marxists at conference will be arguing for and discussing with delegates. Check out the hashtag #UPC2016 on Twitter, keep an eye on this page and follow @MarxistStudent, @BenGliniecki and @gilly_singh for live updates.
Tuesday 12 July, 1pm
This morning saw loads of good policy motions passed on fighting austerity, defending the NHS, defending libraries and developing the union’s international work.
One of the biggest debates was on the question of Labour councils setting no-cuts budgets. It was rightly argued that this must be part of a broader campaign against austerity, with the examples given of the Poplar rent rebellion and Clay Cross council in the 1970s. The importance of this was stressed by one delegate who pointed out that whether cuts are carried out with a heavy heart or a callous one is of no significance to those who are losing their jobs. A fighting stand is required by Labour-controlled councils.
Unfortunately the union executive council and several Labour councillors argued against this motion, arguing that it was too risky and unrealistic. This conservative approach serves only to hold back the development of a united industrial and political struggle against austerity and the capitalist system that causes it. It was disappointing that conference voted to support the executive’s position instead of the motion calling for no-cuts budgets.
In another discussion on the question of defending the NHS and supporting the junior doctors struggle Lee Singh Gill (@gilly_singh), Marxist and young observer at the conference, argued in favour of the motion on the grounds that coordinated industrial struggles and a general strike are a step towards bringing down the government, seeing Labour returned to power on a socialist programme and a fundamental socialist transformation of society. It’s a step forward that this motion was passed.
Given the NEC vote on whether Corbyn will be allowed on the ballot paper in the Labour leadership election that is taking place today, he will not be addressing the conference today as planned. Ben Gliniecki, Marxist and young observer at the conference, was interviewed this morning by media outside the conference hall about his opinions on Corbyn and the Labour leadership election. He said:
I’m backing Corbyn. It’s true that he doesn’t have the support of the majority of Labour MPs, but he does have the support of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who are desperate for an alternative to austerity and cuts. It is the 172 Labour MPs who voted against Corbyn who lack the confidence of their members and voters. Corbyn represents a challenge to the austerity and cuts that millions of people have faced for years. That’s why we have to back him and fight for Labour to adopt bold socialist policies.
Monday 11 July, 5:30pm
This afternoon’s discussion was dominated by Unite’s policy on Trident. This is especially important given the vote coming up next week in Parliament on whether to approve the building of new Trident submarines.
The debate was unhelpfully set up as a choice between utopian political principles and a practical defence of jobs, with many delegates suggesting that the vote was a choice between these two mutually exclusive things. In reality this is a false dichotomy. The replacement of Trident does not guarantee jobs, as many delegates pointed out, huge numbers of defence jobs are being lost already. The fact is that our jobs are at the mercy of the capitalist bosses and a vote to renew Trident doesn’t change that.
Those opposed to renewing Trident argued that Unite should promote defence diversification instead. It was argued in return that this was unrealistic, despite Corbyn’s strong support for such a policy. It’s true that such a policy would be unrealistic under capitalism because the aerospace and defence bosses would never agree to reinvesting their assets in potentially less profitable enterprises. This is why the question of nationalisation, without compensation, of these industries so that their human and material resources and be planned in a socially useful way is absolutely key to this debate. Unfortunately this method of diversification on our terms and with socialist policies, through a democratically planned economy, was not brought out during the discussion.
In the end a statement by the Executive Council that tries to balance between both positions was supported by the conference. The essence of that motion is that Unite supports the renewal of Trident until there is a realistic likelihood of defence diversification taking place. This will be quite disappointing for many people, including members of Unite and especially young members. We want to see a union that is forward-looking, with a clear vision of what the economy should look like in the future and how to fight for it. This was an opportunity to outline what kind of industry we would like to replace Trident with, and crucially how we would achieve it – by nationalisation and planning of the economy by workers themselves. Unfortunately this opportunity has been missed and we are left with what looks like a passive acceptance by the union of the status quo of mass production of weapons of mass destruction.
However, almost all the young members of Unite who spoke in the debate did so passionately against the Executive statement. Clearly this is not an issue that will be going away any time soon and young people are ready to fight for a world free from the madness of nuclear weapons.
Monday 11 July, 1pm
This morning saw speeches from Tony Woodhouse and Len McCluskey, chair and general sectretary of Unite respectively. Both spoke about the union’s achievements and, crucially, indicated their support for Jeremy Corbyn. Len described the actions of the PLP as a “squalid Westminster bubble coup” and said that “the instigators will forever be branded with the mark of infamy”.
The conference passed a motion calling for a public inquiry into the financial crisis and, significantly, for a publicly owned and democratically accountable banking sector. The delegate moving the motion talked about the need for nationalisation of the banks. Those speaking in favour of the motion attacked the banks and bankers most closely connected to the crash in 2008. What could have added to the debate was some discussion of the contradictions and crisis inherent in capitalism, meaning that this is not a crisis caused by greedy individuals, but one that is inevitable under the capitalist system.
Motions on manufacturing and especially steel were discussed. These advocated protectionist measures in one form or another to defend British industry. The crisis affecting British steel is part of a European and worldwide crisis – a crisis of global capitalism. As the huge accumulation of capacity makes itself felt in a crisis of overproduction, markets have become glutted and competition between national capitalist classes has increased. The rise in protectionist measures and state interventions merely reflects that fact.
But in the end free trade vs protectionism represents a false dichotomy for workers. In opposition to national protection we should raise the slogan of ‘international socialism’. And in opposition to state ‘bailouts’ of industry we should put forward nationalisation without compensation under workers control and management.
Finally this morning, it was good to see enthusiastic support for the renationalisation of rail and bus services. It would, in our opinion, be possible to go even further than the motion that was passed, which called for the gradual renationalisation of the railways as the franchises run out. We should be calling for the immediate renationalisation of the railways, with no compensation given to those who have used public transport to get rich by exploiting staff and passengers.
Sunday 10 July, 1pm
This morning’s regional delegation meetings covered some of the preliminary conference business.
In the South East delegation meeting the regional secretary, Jennie Formby, who also sits on the Labour party’s national executive committee, explained the latest developments in the Labour party regarding Corbyn’s leadership. She condemned the actions of the 172 MPs who have taken it upon themselves to undermine the democratically elected leader of the Party and set themselves up against their own members.
It’s clear that this will be a big issue at this conference and we can expect several emergency motions and an executive statement on the question.
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, made this statement yesterday:
I am dismayed at the statement issued by Tom Watson announcing his withdrawal from talks aimed at resolving the crisis in the Labour party
Extraordinarily, I received no notice of this statement before it was issued. I had made arrangements for a meeting of trade union leaders, Tom Watson and representatives of the PLP and the party leader for tomorrow, arrangements requested by Tom Watson and his colleagues, specifically for Mr Watson’s convenience.
In that context, when the possibility of a workable plan had never seemed closer, Tom Watson’s actions today can only look like an act of sabotage fraught with peril for the future of the Labour party.
I must clarify one point in Tom Watson’s statement; I made it absolutely clear from the outset of these discussions that Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation as the leader was not on the agenda. Watson knew that, and it is entirely wrong to suggest that any public statement by Jeremy represented any change in the situation. This is a deeply disingenuous manoeuvre.
I will continue to work with trade union colleagues and others to chart a way forward, including meeting the legitimate concerns of Labour MPs.
Should there have to be a leadership election, I must warn that any attempts to keep Jeremy Corbyn, elected just 10 months ago with an enormous mandate, off the ballot paper by legal means risks a lasting division in the party,
It is time for everyone to commit to a democratic and dignified procedure as the only way to avert such a disaster for working people.
The question of Corbyn and the Labour party is the subject of a fringe meeting hosted by Socialist Appeal on Tuesday at 7pm in The Globe Pub, 78 Middle Street, BN1 1AL.