Beneath the placid surface of Labour conference, discontent stirred

by Rob Marchant

So, Labour made it through conference without a big punch-up with the unions, via a barely-mentioned programme of party reform. Thank heavens for that.

But amidst the conference chatter, a few things have become clear.

A line has been drawn under the Falkirk selection fiasco, yes. But it was a face-saving, uneasy truce, not a final settlement. Unite is not suddenly going to start behaving itself and standing back from the Labour party’s organisation at this point, that much is obvious.

Yet, if Labour wins its battle to reform its relationship with unions next spring, there is the possibility that Unite – and others – could step back from Labour altogether and look for other political routes to influence, such as the nascent People’s Assembly, currently being sponsored by a number of unions. Whatever happens, there is – rightly – extreme nervousness on the part of many activists as to whether the party can actually survive on the income which might result.

But if Labour does not win that battle – for which it depends on union support to win – it can look forward, surely, to a redoubling of Unite’s efforts to influence its selections and elsewhere.

A couple of conference vignettes from the Tuesday night of Labour conference illustrate this nicely.

In choosing to run a joint fringe event, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC) no longer chooses to hide its similarity with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, which supports a dictator rather than an authoritarian pseudo-democrat (a fine distinction for most of us, I know).

But it is only when we get to the VSC literature that we see that it is a campaign supported by the leaders of all three major unions and the head of the TUC: Chávez was “inspirational” – Len McCluskey, Unite; the VSC’s “vital work” – Dave Prentis, UNISON. Little mention, of course, of Chávez’ repression of Venezuela’s own trade unions, at least those not signed up to his party.

The unstinting support given to such dubious causes is just an example to illustrate that there has not surely since the 1980s been a set of union leaders with a politics so aligned to the radical left, nor one which has wielded such concentrated power, thanks to the consolidation which has taken place in the labour movement over recent decades.

Yes, people who are either (a) daft enough to think that Chávez was any kind of real democrat, or (b) know that he wasn’t but don’t have that much regard for democracy anyway, are currently in charge of large swathes of Britain’s labour movement. And we haven’t even started on the non-affiliated unions, such as PCS, run by Respect-supporting Mark Serwotka, or UCU, which has recently been taken to a tribunal over alleged anti-semitism (although they won the case).

But on to another fringe: Councillors Against The Cuts, which related the experience of three Hull councillors (without irony, nicknamed “The Hull Three”) who had been suspended from their Labour group for voting against cuts to services by their own councils, and encouraged other Labour councillors to rebel similarly. It was particularly interesting to hear from one of them that “Unite will support you” if you rebel (a Unison official was also speaking).

Happily, the meeting was fairly poorly-attended. But let’s think about it for a second. Labour’s biggest union partner is encouraging councillors to defy the whips of their Labour Groups and vote down their own budgets. The last time I heard of such things in any numbers was when Militant encouraged the rejection of “rate-capped” council budgets back in the early 1980s. Not exactly one of Labour’s moments of glory, and ultimately the prelude to Kinnock’s confrontation with Militant which started the party’s decade-long road to recovery.

I am not sure how Unite thinks such actions will bring any closer a Labour government. Frankly, I wonder if they care any more, or if they have already written off the party for 2015.

The conclusion to all this is clear: manoeuvres are currently taking place, on the part of a few key unions and selected friends inside and outside the party. As we already knew, even since the defensive media onslaught by the same usual suspects informed us that, straight-facedly, nothing had happened in Falkirk and it was all a storm in a tea-cup.

Falkirk, thankfully, awoke the party from its slumber. Miliband needed the party to get through the conference intact, and it has. It has even pulled off a modest – and possibly temporary – victory, with its popular proposed freeze on energy prices.

But it looks increasingly likely that this conference was merely the calm before the storm to come. The real fallout of the proposals, and the deal done over Falkirk, is simply that the party’s sentence has been suspended for six months.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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12 Responses to “Beneath the placid surface of Labour conference, discontent stirred”

  1. Samuel Wheeler says:

    Which election do you think Chavez fixed Rob? Where is your evidence for this?

    Having an incredibly powerful executive branch may, or may not, be a good idea for a nation. However I fail to see any action Chavez undertook that compares with, say, entering an illegal war against the will of your own population.

    As for Falkirk, the party has exonerated UNITE and the police have said there is no case to answer. Ah, but that’s part of the conspiracy isn’t it?

    I know the thought of getting one over on a big strong trade unionist makes you feel tingly inside, but your personal predilections are not a sound basis for party policy.

  2. Danny says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about Marchant’s drivel about Venezuela and Chavez. Never has a man so ill-informed publically spouted so much nonsense on a subject.

    And this is Rob Marchant you are talking about. It doesn’t matter if the police have said there is no case to answer and the party have exonerated Unite. Rob knows best and Rob is right.

    A more misguided and arrogant commentator you will never find, without visiting a Conservative website. And even then you’d be pretty hard-pressed.

  3. Alan Ji says:

    “Councillors Against The Cuts” really is a fringe, as is the “Labour Representation Committee” which includes very few Labour members.

  4. swatantra says:

    Its a well known truth that most South american elections are rigged by Right and Left and Others. Unite didn’t get off squeaky clean there’s still a bit of a niff in the air.
    no doubt we’ll be revisiting it another day.

  5. Ray McHale says:

    Who the crap are you to sully the term “Uncut” with this sort of bollocks. Of course we can’t have trade unions influencing who gets selected as MPs – those cushy jobs are reserved for careerists SPADs like you, who wouldn’t know the real world if you fell over it. Keep sucking up, I am sure you will get parachuted into some poor constituency where you can stuff your nose in the trough till you get your final salary pension.
    How dare trade unions support councillors who are rejecting cuts which mean their members have their jobs and terms and conditions cut. They should just hand over their money to Labour and be thankful. Clearly you have never joined a union to protect your situation at work – but you probably have so you can claim working class credentials.

  6. steve says:

    “The real fallout of the proposals, and the deal done over Falkirk, is simply that the party’s sentence has been suspended for six months.”

    That gives you six months to prepare an abstention campaign for the 2015 election should the consequences of the “storm” not be to your liking, eh Rob?

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Samuel: you are seriously comparing Britain (Freedom House Freedom Index 1) with Venezuela (Freedom Index 5, where 7 is North Korea). And are we supposed to jump for joy,, just because no criminal charges were brought in. Falkirk? If you genuinely believe a deal was not done,
    I admire your innocence.

    @AlanJi: yes, I acknowledge that in the piece. The point is about Unite supporting Labour rebels.

    @Ray: sorry to burst your bubble pal, but I am not, nor ever have been, a SPAD.

  8. Rallan says:

    I’m a bit confused. Everyone writes with a view and agenda.

    Leaving aside the Labour Party politicians, activists and Union Bosses, what do the majority of normal labour supporters actually want? Do they support substantial, determined and growing Union influence? Or do they see it as too much and want the relationship cut back?

    Genuine question here from someone who doesn’t know.

  9. Stephen Hildon says:

    So no evidence then Rob!

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    @Rallan: this is answered fully in the Uncut book, which was posted up here last week. Lab supporters are mostly in favour. More interestingly, so are ordinary members of affiliated unions.

  11. Henrik says:


    You’ve got around 18 months to get the bloodletting out of the way. In an ideal world, you’d have started the process in 2010 and by now would have a fairly coherent idea of what your offer to the electorate will be; all this faffing about is costing you time, vital time, which should be taken up developing not just soundbite policies from the back of a fag packet, but a compelling and attractive set of visions of how life could be better under Labour.

    Instead, you’ve all decided to play Round 613 of the eternal “fight for Labour’s soul”. I sense very strongly that the Left would rather lose the next election than fight it on the centre ground; now, I don’t have much of a problem with that, but it does seem odd that all this wrangling seems to have taken a lot of your eyes off the main game, which is the forthcoming election.

    For what it’s worth, my objective advice as someone who almost certainly isn’t going to vote for you, in any case, is to get this sorted as soon as possible and decide, as a democratic socialist party, whether ideology and domination by the unions is more important to you than seeing if you can get it right next time. If the former, you’ll have until 2020, conceivably under a Conservative government with a majority, to work out the details, if the latter, get your lunatics on all sides under control, produce a message, sell it to the party and then to the electorate.

    Best of luck, really. Although I have real concerns about your Front Bench and its integrity, intelligence, ability and readiness for government, we do need an Opposition.

  12. John reid says:

    Good article Rob

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