Unite the union held its bi-annual policy conference from 11th to 16th July. Does the largest working-class organisation in Britain have the policies and perspectives needed for the next two years of struggle? The answer has to be, on the whole, no.
Good policy was passed on the casualisation of work, Kurdish solidarity work, the union's relationship with the Labour Party, and many other areas.
However on the key current issue of defending freedom of movement after the referendum Unite failed to take a position. The executive promised only an ongoing debate. The working class needs to fight to break down borders not erect new ones. We need to be on the side of our fellow workers across Europe not siding with Teresa May and the racist right. There were also criticisms of the executive for accepting British exit as a done deal and not advocating for staying in a reformed EU. The vote on this was about 2-to-1 in favour of the executive.
Motions on the steel crisis did not call for nationalisation. Instead there were calls for higher tariffs on Chinese steel and government procurement to support British steel. Another motion called on the World Trade Organisation to deny "market economy status" for China. Economic protectionism is at odds with a policy to make international working-class links, pitting one “national group” of workers against another. At best such a measure, if implemented, will only achieve a short term job boost. It also puts faith in capitalist bosses and institutions to keep terms, conditions and jobs under a more profitable environment. A procurement strategy also depends on the strict use of British labour — it is a policy of British jobs for British workers. Some spoke in opposition to this narrow and nationalistic set of ideas, but the policy passed with only a handful opposing. The devastation of the steel industry can only be counter-acted by the struggle for serious funding from government.
The executive council's statement on Trident was a classic fudge. Unite is against nuclear weapons in principle but for keeping Trident until a government is elected that can offer a firm jobs guarantee to all workers employed in the programme. As many speakers pointed out, we need the transition and diversification of jobs now, and we should be fighting for this alongside campaigning against Trident. All the anti-Trident speakers took the jobs issue seriously, but unfortunately the executive motion won by a large margin.
There didn't seem to be any recognition of the failure to use industrial struggle to fight the anti-Trade Union bill before it became law. Now it is law there seems to be more of a plan for a fightback! This includes co-ordinating industrial action and a "day of action". However there are few signs of preparation for this.
Debates on international issues once again exposed the tenacious hold of Stalinist politics on Unite. With the Cuban Ambassador in the hall, conference passed a composite motion "defending progressive Latin America". There was a welcome condemnation of the constitutional coup in Brazil and call for solidarity with Honduran and Mexican workers. But conference also praised the Cuban regime as a "beacon for progressive forces across Latin America", and re-committed to the Stalinist-led Cuba Solidarity Campaign. In practice this means our union supports a regime that suppresses trade unionists and independent socialists. We need genuine solidarity with Cuba workers not Stalinist bureaucrats.
I spoke against the motion on Israel-Palestine which committed Unite (in theory) to the BDS campaign (although this commitment has been ignored by Unite). The campaign, as it was set out, would make it harder to unite with the Israeli left, labour and peace movement.
The high point of the conference was the debate on Labour. There were motions to support Jeremy Corbyn and to campaign for mandatory re-selection in the Labour Party which all passed handsomely. Corbyn and John McDonnell's speeches were both very warmly received. Both pledged to repeal the Trade Union Act and for further trade union freedoms to reverse Thatcher's laws and Blair's continuation of those laws.
Other solid motions were: to campaign for the public ownership of energy, rail and bus transport; to oppose the Immigration Acts that require bosses and workers to snoop on migrant workers' immigration status; a strong motion on supporting trans peoples' rights to self-define without the hurdles the law and employers create; a re-commitment to am industrial struggle for equal pay for women workers.
More then ever we need to build a rank-and-file movement in Unite at workplace and branch level that can fight to make the often good policy passed more then words, and to offer a coherent challenge to the timidity of Unite's industrial strategy and the Stalinism of the union's international politics.