UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 12 September 2011

All aboard the TUC Battle Bus – Destination Unknown

#TUC11 This year we’ll all miss the wild, rocky shores of the beach, the special fish tea on the front, (that'll be pan bread and marge with your supper, dear?), the wander down the antique shops in the Lanes, (wondering if you are the only middle class w***** to get a wee something to take home, not knowing they buy a bulk order of old hard backs of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist as soon as they hear we are in town), the Irish pubs as authentic as a plastic shamrock; but we will still have the wit and wisdom of Brendan Barber..........

Let’s face it after Liverpool and Manchester; like the Norwegian blue parrot we are all pining for the South Downs fjords, or Brighton as its better known. Instead this year’s hard work will be confined to the gentrified and genteel squares and gardens of Bloomsbury, an area known for the riot of colours in its parks rather than activity in the streets. A condensed Congress takes place within the bowels of the TUC building itself, limited by delegation size but not by the size of the composites.

This is the Campbell’s soup of a Congress, concentrated but always ready to be watered down. If the TUC theme song in Brighton is “I do like to be beside the seaside”, then this year Bob Crowe on behalf of the General Council will be leading the chorus of “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner .....” For the TUC, the Internationale is not just so last year - they never, ever believed it would catch on. Ever. And as Rick always had Paris, where the Germans wore grey, we’ll always have the wit and wisdom of Brendan...

Enough, enough.

Just another Manic Monday..... Morning

Let’s get serious. The week will start in the now traditional way, with the wit and wisdom of Brendan. Perhaps this year the Scouse warrior will don the Braveheart woad and declare with gusto:-
“I am Brendan Barber, and before me, I see a whole ARMY of my countrymen here to battle the Tories. Aye, strike and you may upset the Daily Mail but run and you'll live. At least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may try to besmirch our reputations .... But they'll never take our PENSIONS!!”

Or perhaps we will have the usual impersonation of a smiley TV breakfast host, with the familiar quotient of fake sincerity and false anger to satisfy the brothers and sisters, an act perfected by John Monks before him. The bookies are open..... Brendan however is also charged with moving the only General Council statement to congress this year, on the TUC’s campaign strategy. As it’s a GC statement it will probably pass without comment having already been ok’d by the great and the good of the GC. And that’s a pity, as an honest debate about what the TUC should be doing would be useful.

After that stimulating /soporific opening, (place your bets, place your bets) business as usual gets underway. Congress will debate “The Economy”, or more specifically, in Congress speak, Composite 4, the Alternative Economic Strategy. An old idea, the original alternative economic strategy was a response to the IMF programme imposed on the Callaghan government in the late seventies and developed by the Labour Left and progressive trade unions.

Older readers, those for whom Thatcher’s election was a feature of their student days, (we know who you are) may remember the Congresses of that period were marked by significant debates on the floor where the Right battled the Left. These days no such undignified behaviour is permitted, and to ensure that, the GPC, the Congress Standing Orders Committee takes a group of motions that stand in contrast or even conflict with one another, and produces the aforementioned “Composite”. That’s TUC democracy.

Thus the RMT call for wider public ownership gets tucked in as a final sentence to a paragraph rejecting neo Liberalism, and will probably get passed unanimously, before being packed back on the shelf in the Congress minutes. Honesty is not a TUC virtue, and Composite 4 is not an exception to the general treatment of trade union motions and amendments, but a demonstration of its typical strategy. There are 14 composites based on 78 original motions.

The agenda however continues. Composite 1 covers Trade Union Rights and marks a combination of longer term objectives such as opposition to anti trade union legislation, with a realisation of the dangers that are only too apparent in the current workplace situation to the deterioration in democratic rights; from current de-recognition battles and the loss of trade union facilities, to the right to peaceful protest, emphasising heavily the UK’s failure to meet International obligations. Then Congress will romp through Comp 2, the Deregulation Agenda, while passing through Vulnerable and Atypical workers and the rights of smaller unions. All this before Monday lunchtime.

The Whirlwind continues

After lunch, in the traditional ‘dead zone’ where the post prandial mood of delegates hardly encourages excitement or exhilaration, Michael Leahy of Community (that titan union of the Labour Movement), this year’s president, gets the opportunity to thrill the delegates with his own stirring words of encouragement. Or not.

Then the serious business is that of sorting out public services. Composite 9 - do keep up - is grandly entitled “Public Services and their importance to the economy”. The composite is a model critique of the effects of public sector cuts in communities and in the wider economy, emphasising not just cuts in services but in jobs, pay and pensions as well as continued privatisation, all of which have real economic consequences, and proposes both economic alternatives and a campaign programme.

The only unfortunate aspect is this debate is almost the sense of déjà-vu. TUC debates on public services have been making similar points for over 25 years, from the Thatcher / Major privatisation programmes through the turbulent New Labour years to the Con-dem dawn a year ago. Congress must appreciate the step change in the drive against public services represented by the Osborne New Austerity agenda, and reflect a serious acceleration in their response.

Congress then proceeds to a romp though the equalities dimension of the agenda. Women, tick off, Black issues, check, LGBT, check, disability, similar. Then public sector equality duties and reform of the EHRC, followed by “Defending Multiculturalism”, the curiously titled motion (and amendments) dealing with the serious issues of racism and anti fascism. Amendments address approaches to the EDL, SDL and WDL.
That will get them hungry for the General Council dinner and Ed Balls.

Tuesday- a Leader Speaks....

9.30 am and its out of bed and into the low Carbon Economy – composite 6 - before the dynamic leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, addresses Congress. It’s ten years since Tony Blair as prime minister was prevented from lecturing the comrades by events in New York and the collapse of the twin towers. This is Ed’s virgin voyage into the bosom of his potential allies and comrades.

Will Congress be encouraged by the fiery rhetoric of “Red Ed” standing before us an ally in the fight against the pernicious and malign forces of reaction or will comrades see the Labour Movement fracture before their very eyes as yet another leader of the Labour Party distances himself from the industrial wing of the movement, imposing an agenda forged in the leafy suburbs of Hampstead by social democratic “thinkers”? This will be one of the key moments of Congress this year.

But there will little time to digest and dissect Ed’s oration, as Congress plunges onto the debates on the NHS (composite 10) and social care (motion 51) via arthritis and psychotic drugs (that will be a debate, not an experience for the delegates). All composites and motions are worthy and commit the General Council to a programme of action, before moving on to similarly agreeing on education, Scottish teachers pay and Protecting Children, (Motion 59), where a UNISON amendment draws attention to the devastation being wrought on all local government services where the scotched earth policy of the Tories has been in full swing. All this stimulation before 12.45 as well. It’s a busy life for the TUC congress delegate.

And then there’s the football motion...

Tuesday afternoon sees a rag, tag and bobtail of subjects debated. Composite 7, defending public transport, Composite 8, Thameslink rolling stock, then Maritime Safety and Piracy (sort of linked subjects ) before the Arts, the Minimum Wage, Intellectual Property Rights and the BBC licence fee. Then the big debate of the week. You can always rely on the PFA. This year they are wrapping themselves in the Union Jack to exhort the Congress to support a Great Britain football team in next year’s Olympics.

No matter that the SFA, WFA, and NIFA are not in favour, or that the respective players unions in those countries are opposed, nor that the political background is one in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have distinct political characters and agendas. This also ignores the threat to those countries’ future participation in international tournaments. Congress could see a real debate here, before moving on to the small matter of the privatisation of justice. As always delegates experience the full range of the sublime to the ridiculous.

Wednesday- the test of reality against rhetoric

Much has been said and written over the past twelve months about the battle over public sector pensions, about industrial action and trade union unity, from Socialist Worker to the Daily Mail. After the months of talks with Government in the person of Danny Alexander, a Tory in the mould of Norman Tebbit elected in the tartan garb of a Lib Dem highland sheep, followed by “sector negotiations” leading to nothing, this Congress is the last chance saloon to rescue trade union dignity and initiative by serious announcements that reflect the necessary militant response to the threat posed. This is not the time for further talks but for a genuine coordinated industrial response. This debate is the measure of the future of the TUC itself.

Then Congress will move to Health and Safety and the International section of the agenda, debating the WTO, the Middle East, Egypt, and Playfair. References to the situation in Palestine and a call for the review of links with Histadrut will inevitably draw a reaction from the more pro Zionist sections of the movement, giving a lively end to the Congress week.

Seventy eight motions romped through in a three day period. The nearby Museum Tavern, the nearest hostelry, should, on its own, solve any local unemployment problems, at least for half a week with their temporary staff requirement as the closest boozer to the congress. Has anyone warned them???

While the talk takes place in the hall, the great and the good will gather to seek to orchestrate a consensus, and the irregulars and the rebels will huddle to mutter reassurance to one another. The outcome is likely to have long term implications for the Labour movement.