Sunday, May 31, 2009

If leaders had not missed a tip, unions might have backed a winner

A WEEK, as Harold Wilson used to say, is a long time in politics. As not a week goes by without fresh revelations of MPs' generosity to themselves at public expense, and Labour sinks lower than ever in the polls, each agonising week till it ends must seem even longer.

A YEAR is even longer, and though my memory isn't as bad as that of those MPs who claim for mortgages forgetting they've already been paid, I'd quite forgotten a little discussion I witnessed a year ago at Sheffield Town hall. Well, there have been wars and things to take my mind off it.

But this weekend at the trades union councils' conference in Eastbourne, our attention was drawn to one of the resolutions we adopted last year in Sheffield:

14 MP and Ministers' expenses

Because of all the publicity highlighting the expense claims by MPs, MEPs and Ministers - of which some are obviously working the system for their own benefit, which after all is tax payers' money - it begs the question are they there to serve the electorate or for financial reasons, i.e. to make money out of the tax payer? And as the rules for MPs and MEPs expenses are so weak they can claim for nearly everything, even their families. Union members will tell you that it is wrong for MPs, MEPs and Ministers to make themselves rich at taxpayers' expense.

So Conference requests the TUC General Council:
(i) to express our grave concerns about that to the Prime Minister; and
(ii) seek assurances that the rules governing MPs and Ministers" expenses will be tightened up, particularly with regard to accommodation and transport in this current year.
(iii) that a leading labour politician be invited to speak on the progress of this issue at next year's TUC Conference.

Greater Manchester

This reminder prompted Jeremy Dear of the National Union of Journalists to quip that if he knew who had drafted that resolution he would like to ask their thoughts on the 2.30 at Newmarket.

Well, it was not me. Matter of fact, although I listened to the debate last year, I did not realise the significance it might have. But there is a body of people who are supposed to pay attention to our deliberations. As you will see, the resolution on MPs and Ministers' expenses called on the TUC General Council to do something.

In previous years the Report on the year's work handed to conference delegates has included the previous year's resolutions with a comment after each one, indicating what the TUC has made of it. This year there was nothing after the resolutions, but simply a note before them: "All motions and amendments were agreed by Conference. All motions were in line with TUC policy and did not need particular reference to the TUC General Council".

It's nice to know that the "general staff" of Britain's trade union movement approved of a motion sent up line by the conference of the movement's area lay councils, and dealing with politicians' expenses. But a motion becomes a resolution when you resolve to do something, or as in this case call on your leaders to do something. And as delegates observed, if only the TUC had taken notice, and done something in line with this far-sighted resolution, Britain's trade union movement could have been ahead of the Tory press on this issue, and able to separate itself from the disgrace of corrupt MPs, and to win public respect by giving a lead, rather than reduced to coping with the consequences of disillusionment with Labour.

If might also lead us look at some union leaders' income and privileges. So be it.

This year's trades councils' conference, on the same weekend that Vauxhall car workers were anxiously watching talks on the future of their company, and seeing a "Labour" government less able or willing to look after their future than a Tory government does for jobs in Germany, was naturally concerned with something even bigger than the row over MPs expenses. The first motion on the agenda, "Response to the Economic Crisis", was a composite from Harlow, West Midlands, Swansea, Oxfordshire and Cardiff.

As well as jobs, and wages, it referred to homes, and to the need to defend public services, and regain union rights, and the 2008 Trades Union Congress resolution for public ownership of utilities and services. A delegate from Coventry wanted to know why a call for nationalisation of the banks, which had been part of the original motion agreed by West Midlands, had been lost in the compositing. He and others proposed it be restored. The chair said this could not be done because those party to the compositing had agreed to its removal. We then heard that some had only agreed because they had been told that if nationalisation of the banks stayed, the whole resolution would be ruled out of order as contrary to TUC policy.

At a time when public disgust and anger with the banks irresponsibility has not abated, nor been lessened by seeing massive public funds used to bail them out, it seems our union bureaucrats are afraid to let us discuss public ownership and control, or appear even as left-wing as the Liberal Democrats! On high finance, as on the corruption of parliament, our union leaders tied to New Labour would sooner leave the door open to the far Right to capitalise on people's unease and anger, even as they try to frighten us with warnings against "extremism".

On a practical level, given the chance to submit one motion to trades union congress itself this year, delegates opted to prioritise the resolution from Tyne and Wear, for reviving and developing TUC unemployed workers' centres. In discussion it was said these should not only advise unemployed union members and help them remain active in the trade union movement, but assist young people and migrant workers who found themselves unemployed, and bring them into the movement.

Though badly hit by de-industrialisation, weakened unions, and neglect,the trades union councils have been reviving in recent years, representing trade unionism in the community, and unemployed centres are a natural extension for them in this period.

If not so many delegates came to conference this year, as a couple of my friends suggested, that could be due to chance factors. It could also be that, enjoyable as the weekend was, some trades unionists aren't convinced of the relevance of such discussions to their own struggles, or don't see the value of a democracy in which attempts to influence policy must be tailored to fit existing policy, and even then don't lead to new initiatives. If so it is a mistake. Any opportunity for rank-and-file activists to get together, exchange experience and ideas, and discuss policies, should be taken, whether it is the trades councils' conference which happened this weekend, or the National Shop Stewards Network which is meeting on June 27. We can challenge the leadership in the TUC or Labour Party, and more important, rebuild the real labour movement. .

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