A couple of days ago I wrote that the Labour Party’s Policy Forum in Warwick last weekend should be the opportunity for our unions to demand that the Government changed direction. What better time – after Brown’s defeat in Glasgow East and given that unions now provide 90% of the Labour Party’s finance – to get a commitment that Government will deliver on our members’ aspirations?
The unions went in with something like 130 demands. The Guardian published some of them. I don’t have much more detail, because the list of policy issues to be raised at the Forum were not fully presented to the Unite Executive. But what the demands represented was the absolute bare minimum one might have expected from a Labour Government, given a Labour Party that is so dependent on union money.
What did we get? We’re now seeing the spin, of course. The Tory press is claiming that “Weakened Gordon Brown gives in to union demands”. The truth seems very, very different.
No concessions were made by Brown on removing anti-union laws. This is a key issue for those of us who want to see effective trade unions. The demand for free school meals for primary school children was dropped in favour of a statement that Councils should be encouraged to hold trials. Not very effective, given that most Councils are now run by the Tories.
But it’s on NHS privatisation that our union leaders’ real character is displayed. This is a betrayal that could cost us the NHS.
I’ve received a report circulated by Martin Rathfelder, the Director of the Socialist Health Association, a Labour Party affiliate. He describes the debate on the NHS:
‘(The Conference) produced some considerable improvements in policy – in particular a much more coherent statement about public and private sector provision than I have seen before: http://www.sochealth.co.uk/news/npfconcensus08.htm. This statement was accepted by all but 1 of the 161 delegates.
A number of amendments along the lines of “There will be no further expansion of the private sector within the NHS” were rejected with a consistent majority of 157 to 4. It is quite plain than none of the Unions intend to fight on this territory’.
So why were there no union votes against privatisation? The policies of unions like Unite and Unison are clear enough. Our lay activists have no problems with opposing privatisation.
The agreed document supports the continuing privatisation and break-up of the NHS through the Darzi proposals, the only concession being that we might be able to keep NHS pensions:
‘In the NHS, the Government will seek to extend entitlements to NHS pensions to those staff transferring to social enterprises in the Primary Community sector as part of moves to reform that sector of NHS provision and give front-line staff more control over services as set out in the Darzi review’.
Even on hospital cleaning, a red-line issue for Unison, there is no commitment to bring the services back in-house:
‘This is exceptionally important in priority services such as hospital cleaning, where the decision to use a particular provider must be based on the strongest evidence about effectiveness. Where providers fail to deliver a satisfactory service, its contract should not be renewed or in exceptional circumstances, terminated. Hospital cleaners are an essential part of the healthcare team, playing a vital part in avoiding healthcare acquired infections, There must be rigorous standards of cleanliness enforced in all hospitals to ensure they are clean and safe for patients’.
It is desperately disappointing that so little has been delivered.
But what is worse, headlines like that in the Times, quoted above, will be used as an excuse by our union leaders to try to rally us all behind Brown and Labour.
The claim of Brown giving in to unions is very far removed from the truth. It was a Financial Times article that got it right, with the headline: ‘If this is a union victory I would hate to see them lose’.
I think it is time to say no to this nonsense. Why should our union subscriptions be used to fund a party that is destroying the NHS? It’s time for a real debate in the union movement.
An update to the FT website shows the scale of the betrayal here. The ‘agreement’ includes phrases like:
‘We will continue to use voluntary and community organisation, social enterprises and the independent sector in providing (public) services’…. ‘Allowing real choice means that patients, and the NHS, can act on these preferences. So we will take choice further… in other areas of healthcare including maternity services and general practice’.
Union policy has been thrown away for the sake of supporting a creaky neoliberal Government.