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From: The Socialist issue 862, 1 July 2015: Reject EU austerity!

Search site for keywords: Unite - Labour - Union - Scotland - SNP - Anti-union laws - Trade union - Unions - Suzanne Muna - Scottish National Party - Ireland - Labour Party

Unite rules conference

Britain's biggest union to discuss leaving Labour

Labour: exit stage right? Photo Paul Mattsson

Labour: exit stage right? Photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

Kevin Parslow, Secretary, Unite Waltham Forest LE/1228 (personal capacity)

Britain's largest trade union, Unite, will discuss making major changes to political strategy on 6 to 10 July. Key debates include permitting illegal industrial action, giving members in Scotland greater autonomy - and withdrawing support for Labour.

The 1.4 million-member general union holds a 'rules conference' every four years. Delegates decide on changes to the rule book which sets the framework for all other union policies.

Current and planned anti-union laws are an obstacle - at least in perception - to Unite's response to austerity attacks. The union's leading body, the executive council, will propose deleting the words "so far as may be lawful" from the rules.

The Socialist Party backs the proposal. New restrictions on balloting for strikes may cause an increase in unofficial action. The union should not feel constrained in supporting this.

Unite is also facing political challenges. Scotland's regional committee is proposing it become a "Scottish executive council", giving it independence on industrial and political decisions.

Over half of Unite members in Scotland who voted in the general election opted for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Scotland's disillusionment with Labour has very good cause - but should not be channelled into supporting nationalist, pro-austerity parties like the SNP.

In Ireland, Unite has disaffiliated from Labour and backs radical and socialist candidates. If this amendment is passed, so should a future Scottish executive.

Labour affiliation

Undoubtedly, the amendments causing most interest are those opposing Unite's affiliation to Labour.

Last year's special Labour conference further curtailed unions' diminishing influence within the party. Unite consequently reduced its 3 million affiliation fees by half. But it then spent 3.5 million from December to May in extra donations to Labour's election funds!

Many members feel this was throwing good money after bad. Labour was not proposing to repeal anti-union laws, or seriously challenge austerity. Now we see the further rightward drift of most of the candidates for leader and deputy leader.

Even with the deadline for amendments falling before the general election, 15 branches and committees proposed deleting affiliation to Labour.

Some suggested the union back candidates in line with Unite policy, which Socialist Party delegates will support. Another four want membership of political committees to be open to all, not just Labour Party members. One proposes splitting the political fund into 'affiliated' and 'general' funds - allowing individuals to opt out of paying towards Labour, like public sector union Unison.

However, the executive council recently passed a statement to put to the rules conference. If carried, it will prevent a vote - although not discussion - on these amendments.

The statement asks delegates to put off deciding on disaffiliating from Labour until the national and Scottish leaders, and London mayoral candidate, have been selected. Only two executive members, including the Socialist Party's Suzanne Muna, voted against it.

Although the executive assures members the rules conference can be recalled, delegates should reject this statement.

We understand the desire for one more 'last chance' for Labour affiliation. But the union's political strategy is blocked by the party's machine and has no future.

Unite could be making its recommendation for the Labour leadership soon. Many hope the executive will support Jeremy Corbyn's left challenge. But even this is not guaranteed.

The sooner Unite breaks with Labour, and starts work towards a new mass party for working class people, the better.

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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Article dated 1 July 2015

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