by Matt Mansfield
The national leadership of Unison held an anti-cuts Conference in a hotel in central Glasgow on 4th September, which was billed as one of a number of similar events in different areas of the country. In many ways this event shows the fear of having large sections of its organisation smashed that haunts the Unison leadership: this fear is driving the union to seek out allies in the fight against the cuts.
The first thing of note was the publicity: it was circulated on left email lists and I thought it was a basic event held by Glasgow City Unison branch, which is effectively run by the Socialist Party in these parts. However, as far as I know it did not appear on the boards/network for Glasgow City Unison members, nor was there anything through my own Unison branch although this tends to be pretty insular in nature.
So myself and a friend turned up and we signed in with a glossy pack being given out and it was clear that anyone was being allowed in. We went into the main hall (the Ballroom!) and there we found the union’s general secretary Dave Prentis, no less, addressing about 400 people on the evils of the cuts and how this ConDem attack on all that’s good in the country is unnecessary.
The conference was made up of lay union officials, largely ex-members of left groups with some current members of the likes of the Socialist Workers’ Party and Scottish Socialist Party plus community activists including some local anarchists. A large swathe of central Scotland was represented: Glasgow, Edinburgh and most points in between.
Prentis was followed by Stephen Boyd of the Scottish Trades Union Congress who presented a series of slides which he has obviously been taking round lots of union branches outlining the Keynesian case against the cuts: debt levels are not historically high nor are repayment levels and the UK is not Greece because the economy is in a better state, it’s not corrupt as the Brits pay taxes (unlike the Greeks) and “we” have our own currency. The two things that jump out were that by implication the Greek government has no choice but to destroy the living standard of the Greek working class, but fortunately Britain has a choice. From this we can get the impression that this is all a terrible mistake and all we have to do is make the Keynesian case and this can be corrected.
In fact the ruling class in large sections of the world, such as the UK, Germany, France and the Republicans in opposition in the US, see the chance to drive home a major defeat of the working class and grind down living standards for at least a generation, and the current course has to be exposed as a conscious political decision not “a mistake” or an evil action by some misguided politicians. The entire Labour Party leadership has accepted the need for “cuts” in public spending which in reality mean a reduction in working class living standards. Their only dissent is over the timing.
During questions a comrade from the National Union of Journalists raised the demand that councils should refuse to implement the cuts and set illegal budgets. From the platform, for the benefit of this audience Dave Prentis enthusiastically agreed with this in his summing up. At the lunch break a comrade expressed his disbelief: “Did I just hear Dave Prentis call for illegal budgets? – he’ll be growing a wooden nose soon”. Since this was run by Unison HQ the Conference included a free lunch for the assembled masses.
There were eight workshops and I went to the one covering building alliances against the cuts. This was run by Unison’s head of Local Government. The standard form of address in this meeting was “comrade”, as opposed to “colleague” used from the top table in the opening session. Notably only two people in the meeting expressed anything other than hostility to the role of the Labour Party.
The convenor raised the issue of “building alliances with our elected representatives” and was told by a rep from Glasgow City Unison and their anti-cuts campaign that we should only deal with those councillors who sign up to undertakings to vote against any and all cuts and that in Scotland the cuts will be implemented by Labour and the Scottish Nationalists, not the ConDems. In this workshop alone five trades councils and anti-cuts campaigns of varying sizes and stages of development were represented.
In itself the whole event was extraordinary – a comrade complained to me how patronising the Unison bureaucracy is, which is true – but the real point is they are so terrified by the onslaught of the government they have opened the doors to anyone to form defence campaigns. This was a conference essentially aimed at activists, principally the left, and the bureaucracy has no alternative but to allow and support such campaigns.