From 11 to 15 July, during a vital period for the entire labour movement, Unite the Union’s policy conference met in Brighton. Most significantly was the enormous endorsement given to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party by this conference - that of Britain’s biggest union, representing 1.5 million members.
Both Corbyn and McDonnell got standing ovations when they addressed the conference, and a motion in support of Corbyn’s leadership was passed overwhelmingly. Unfortunately, when asked a direct question about whether he would support mandatory reselection McDonnell didn’t give a straight answer. Nevertheless, with support from Unite's Executive, delegates passed a motion in favour of mandatory reselection shortly after, with the aim of holding Labour MPs to account. This makes Unite the first union to formally call for this basic democratic demand in the Labour Party, and it is up to the union leadership - and the Labour and Momentum leadership - to lead the campaign on this.
This vote marks an important step forward for the Corbyn movement, demonstrating the militant and radicalised mood that has developed amongst Labour's grassroots as a result of the back-stabbing and bureaucratic manoeuvres by the Blairites. Until only recently, the Unite leadership was against mandatory reselection. The fact that they have now come out and backed this democratic demand reflects the anger that has rapidly built up in the past few weeks towards the coup plotters in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Elsewhere, the early business of the conference was on the economy, austerity and manufacturing. Among other things, the conference passed a motion calling for a public inquiry into the financial crisis and, significantly, for a publicly owned and democratically accountable banking sector. The delegate moving the motion talked about the need for nationalisation of the banks. What could have added to the debate was to stress this is not a crisis caused by greedy individuals, but one that is inevitable under the capitalist system.
Motions on manufacturing and especially steel were also discussed. These advocated protectionist measures in one form or another to defend British industry and were adopted by the conference. In reality, however, free trade vs protectionism represents a false dichotomy for workers. We need to be for socialist internationalism, with nationalisation under workers’ control to support and develop industry.
The biggest debate was on the issue of Trident. This debate was unhelpfully set up as a choice between “utopian” political principles and a “practical” defence of jobs. In reality this is another false dichotomy. The replacement of Trident does not guarantee jobs: as many delegates pointed out, huge numbers of defence jobs are being lost already. Under capitalism, our jobs are at the mercy of the bosses, and a vote to renew Trident doesn’t change that.
Those opposed to renewing Trident argued that Unite should promote “defence diversification” instead. It was argued in return that this was unrealistic. It’s true that such a policy would be unrealistic under capitalism, since the aerospace and defence bosses would never agree to reinvesting their assets in potentially less profitable enterprises. This is why the question of nationalisation, without compensation, of these industries is absolutely key to this debate. Unfortunately this type of diversification was not brought out during the discussion.
In the end, a statement by the Unite Executive Council was passed that supports the renewal of Trident until there is a “realistic likelihood of defence diversification” taking place. This will be disappointing for many people. We want to see a union that is forward-looking, with a clear vision of what the economy and society should look like. This was a missed opportunity to outline what kind of industries could replace Trident, if the money and resources were freed up by abolishing it, and crucially how we would achieve it – by nationalisation and planning of the economy by workers themselves.
However, almost all the young members of Unite who spoke in the debate did so passionately against the Executive statement. Clearly this is not an issue that will be going away any time soon, and young people are ready to fight for a world free from the madness of nuclear weapons.
One of the other big debates was on the question of Labour councils setting no-cuts budgets. It was rightly argued that this must be part of a broader campaign against austerity, with the examples given of the Poplar rent rebellion and Clay Cross council in the 1970s. The importance of this was stressed by one delegate who pointed out that whether cuts are carried out with a heavy heart or a callous one is of no significance to those who are losing their jobs. A fighting stand is required by Labour-controlled councils.
Unfortunately the Executive Council and several Labour councillors argued against this motion, saying that it was too risky and “unrealistic”. This conservative approach serves only to hold back the development of a united industrial and political struggle against austerity and the capitalist system that demands it. It was disappointing that conference voted to support the Executive’s position instead of the motion calling for no-cuts budgets.
On questions of broad industrial strategy, Unite is aiming for every workplace where it has a branch to be “strike-ready”, putting the union on a war footing. This week saw policy adopted which calls for Unite to organise and campaign for a general strike to fight austerity, and which accepts the need to break the law before the law is used to break the poor. This is the kind of militant attitude that the labour movement requires at the present time.
Overall this has been a positive week for Unite and the labour movement. Our task going forward is to link up industrial and political struggles by calling for a general strike to bring down the government and get a Corbyn-led Labour Party into power on a socialist programme.