Delegate Ray M reports from the Unite Policy Conference 2016 on Trident, Corbyn and the Trade Union Act
Len McCluskey’s opening speech
This year’s Unite policy conference takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented political crisis. Following the Brexit vote, the establishment are directly intervening in the Labour leadership crisis. In his opening speech, Len McCluskey spoke about the stabilising role of Unite and the trade unions in times of crisis in the Labour Party. He then highlighted how despite his best efforts the talks to achieve a peaceful resolution to the Labour leadership were sabotaged by Tom Watson. He highlighted how the talks had been inexplicably called off without any notice and Len made it clear that removing Corbyn was never up for debate during negotiations. He said the plotters will be branded forever with the mark of infamy in what was an attempted political lynching against Corbyn. He served notice that any attempts to exclude Corbyn from the leadership ballot would lead to long lasting divisions in the Labour movement. Len won enthusiastic support from delegates when he pledged Unites’ continued support for Corbyn.
Len also spoke about the anti-trade union bill. He argued that we would not allow the Act to stop us defending our members. But rather than talking about backing members who defy or fall foul of the law, he said “We have shown over the last few years that we can find imaginative ways to put pressure on bad employers without entangling ourselves in strike laws” – a reference to leverage.
Leverage is a useful weapon in our armoury, but can be no substitute for strike action. In recent years Unite has a proud record of not repudiating members’ action. When opposing the Trade Union Bill last year we heard fiery rhetoric about defiance. We even changed our Rules to allow illegal action. This was a significant climb-down from last year where Unite had committed to support members taking action that broke the new unjust laws. We need to support the action required to win today – even if that means defying this unjust law, as workers often have had to do in the past.
Early in the debate on motions, a composite motion on developing a strategic plan for manufacturing argued for a number of measures to help business, like taking action on business rates and energy prices. The strategy included a demand to lobby the government to ‘Buy British’ and the speaker even argued against buying ‘foreign crap’. The motion ended with a demand to ensure that UK government procurement policy demand that any goods built in Britain, use British products and labour! This was challenged by delegates and a commitment was given from the union chair, Tony Woodhouse that in no way would we be returning to the slogans of ‘British Jobs for British workers’. Apart from the implicit racism in the motion, the other worry is the way the motion reflects the defeatism of those losing jobs in manufacturing who see no way of challenging the decline apart from propping up the boss and buying British goods made with British labour.
The key debate of the conference was Trident renewal. Against the background of the coup in the Labour party, Trident has become a cipher through which the right of the labour movement and the Tories are looking to isolate and defeat Corbyn and the left. The executive and Len McCluskey had prepared a statement to put to conference. If passed all of the other motions would fall. The executive statement was similar to those passed in 2010 and 2014 where a strong moral anti Trident position was taken, which was accepted by many to be anti-Trident. However, in practice the position has meant that jobs come first whenever the question of Trident renewal is raised within the labour movement. This year, the statement made the same points about the priority of Unite being to defend members’ jobs and supporting Trident renewal. This statement said “… until there is a government in office ready, willing and able to give cast iron guarantees… our priority must be to defend and secure our members employment.” The difference with this year’s statement is there are strong commitments to supporting defence diversification.
A range of speakers from across sectors of the union spoke in favour of both positions. Most speakers, including Len, acknowledged opposition to WMD’s, however, Len and other speakers in favour of the executive statement increasingly caricatured the anti-Trident position as leading to a jobs massacre and ghost towns in Barrow and Faslane if passed. The idea that Unite passing a motion to oppose Trident renewal would lead to the Tories cancelling the order for WMD’s is fanciful. Len and others also argued that the GMB were waiting in the wings to recruit our members who didn’t see strong support from Unite for defence workers jobs. One speaker who works on the submarines spoke about how the union would be destroyed if the anti-Trident position was passed. These kind of threats and blackmail dominated the pro Trident renewal debate. The position of supporting Trident renewal was also dishonestly posed as a strategy for fighting for jobs when it is nothing of the sort.
Support for Trident represents the worst of the partnership strategy, where workers agree that what is good for the employer is good for members. With estimates that Trident will cost £205 billion to keep 11,500 people employed for the lifetime of the project, we can be sure that very little of this expenditure will find its way to the workers or their communities. Partnership with the employer and the Tories is a substitute for a strategy of bringing the movement together to fight for a credible industrial strategy that campaigns for the funds to be made available to oppose a real and present danger – climate change. Instead, the whole union has been persuaded to back Trident on the basis that the alternative would devastate communities and split the union. Those who argued for cancellation argued that a Corbyn-led Labour Party provided us with the opportunity to fight for a realistic and credible diversification strategy. Delegates pointed out that similar arguments were used by the executive two years ago to encourage conference to support fracking. Conference defeated the fracking motion and it hasn’t prevented us from organising workers who work for companies involved in fracking.
It was also pointed out that Trident is a jobs destroyer. Apart from the huge sums being poured into Trident renewal with little return, evidence is now available that the rising costs of Trident are leading to cuts in spending on conventional defence projects where jobs are put under threat to maintain the Trident commitment. For example, in 2011, the government announced an order for 13 Type 26 frigates to be built on the Clyde in a ‘frigate factory’ with the potential to build 35 boats if Scotland voted to remain in the UK. Shortly after the Scottish referendum, the order was cut to 8. Over 800 jobs are immediately threatened with about 3,500 potentially affected and two yards threatened with closure if the decision isn’t reversed. Reps from both the GMB and Unite feel betrayed and acknowledge that the cuts and delays to building frigates are directly related to supporting the commitment to Trident. In the same week the cuts were announced to frigate production, the MOD announced plans to build a modernised floating dock at Faslane. The cost of the cuts was similar to that pledged for building the dock at Faslane.
We lost the vote for cancelling Trident to divert funds into socially useful jobs this time. With the executive, the general secretary, the right of the union and the official left all backing Trident renewal, the vote was overwhelming. However, the arguments for an alternative industrial strategy with energy renewables at its core were very popular. The ‘Unite Against Trident’ pamphlet has sold well at conference. The pamphlet explains how partnership which is at the heart of the pro Trident renewal strategy undermines trade union independence and hinders reps in developing a vision of jobs beyond Trident. It also outlines working examples of how skills in Barrow, Faslane, Rosyth and the Clyde could be transformed today into the production of socially useful, energy renewables.
To win the anti-Trident renewal argument and any future vote, we have to convince wider layers of the movement that an alternative strategy is not just necessary, but that it is also possible. What is missing is the political will to make the transition. We know the employers and government have little interest in diversification and will continue to support lucrative arms contracts. However, the major obstacle to achieving change is the partnership. Union reps and members need to break from the idea that change is impossible without the employers support. Partnership is debilitating when it comes to developing an independent labour movement strategy that benefits workers and their communities. Never has this been more apparent than with the support we gave this week for Trident renewal. Every Tory and right wing Labour MP will be heartened by the vote at Unite policy conference. However, the arguments for a radical industrial strategy that breaks from partnership and sees climate change as the main threat were well received this year.
At the moment little work on diversification will be taken without a fight with the employers and the government and the cancellation of Trident which can release the necessary funds. The key task for activists is to patiently win these arguments throughout the union, explain the toxicity of the partnership strategy and hold the union to account for the welcome commitments made to supporting defence diversification.