The first item of business was an emergency motion against the NEC – the motivators and backers of which made it clear that they wanted the NEC to stand down after the vote of no confidence. One delegate after another got up to demand the NEC resign immediately or give a date for when they would resign because of “the attempt to usurp the power of conference and the motivation behind this as well as discrimination”. To twist the knife a number of delegates also demanded that people on the current NEC not stand again in any election.
Again the argument came back that ‘a faction’ of the union had taken over and put its people in charge of the committees of NEC. Back on day one, a number of delegates lambasted the NEC over this. Of course, this was itself a purely factional point, the old establishment didn’t share power with the left and none of these delegates complained about that. But because the left has set up a campaigning organisation called Time For Real Change it is easy to portray it as a faction, as opposed to the undisclosed faction of the right of the union which has always existed as a majority and always controlled the union since its foundation in 1993.
The debate on the Nordic Model of sex work was very interesting. UNISON has had a position since 2010 of supporting the Nordic Model but in the last few years, led mainly by the LGBTQ+ comrades, there has been a fight to get the position overturned. Jackie Lewis from the LGBTQ+ committee argued that the Nordic Model didn’t protect women and didn’t end sex work. The supporters of the Nordic Model argued that in fact similar laws in Scotland had protected women, compared to Germany where sex work is decriminalised. The debate was comradely and when the vote was taken it was clear that the mood had shifted decisively since 2010, the motion was passed overwhelmingly.
After lunch, conference reassembled and was told by the chair Andrea Egan that the NEC was still preparing a statement. After a short time, the NEC members took their seats and a statement was read out whereby the NEC apologised for what it had done and reasserted both the sovereignty of conference and the role of the General Secretary. They pledged to do better next time. This wasn’t good enough for their opponents who took to the podium one after the other demanding the resignation of the NEC and calling them a disgrace to the movement. It was clearly too much for some on the NEC as some started weeping at the unrelenting onslaught of some of the delegates.
The more vicious the attacks the more some delegates were whooping and cheering. They scented blood and they were in a frenzy.
It is worth also noting that during some of the more intense and nasty episodes of conference younger delegates had gotten up and pleaded for the sake of their mental health for people to change their tone or for the conference to move on to other business. Their feelings were considered irrelevant of course next to the factional desire to crush the left on the NEC.
The chair said that the statement was essentially all they would get and it was time to move on which led to a walkout by some delegates. Conference was already a little more sparse than usual as several delegates had already left to go home so it wasn’t really clear how many people walked out but there were not many delegates left on conference floor by the end.
When conference moved on to the reprioritised motions delegates discussed PR, only one delegate spoke against and after eight or so speakers in favour, the conference voted by a significant majority to back PR which will lead to an interesting shift possibly in the balance of forces in Labour on the question.
The fourth reprioritised motion was another one condemning the NEC for disinviting Angela Raynor to speak at conference. Some delegates seemed to think that she had a god-given right to speak at conference as she had been a UNISON member. The NEC made clear that she was one possible speaker but that they had decided not to invite her after her comments about supporting police ‘shooting terrorists first and asking questions later’. One delegate from Northern Ireland got up and talked about the Bloody Sunday massacre, putting into context how thoughtless and careless Raynor’s comments about shooting terrorists were considering the atrocities by the British Army and police in Northern Ireland. Thankfully conference rejected this motion – though probably because a lot of the anti-TFRC delegates had walked out already!
The Raynor motion was so ‘factionally’ motivated it was ridiculous. The idea that the NEC should be censured for not inviting a particular MP and that conference should take up valuable time to debate such an issue betrayed the real agenda of the opposition. Conference didn’t discuss Ukraine, barely touched on the health sector, and passed only an inadequate composite motion on the cost of living crisis. Anti-TFRC delegates kept on speaking again an again saying it broke their hearts to spend so much time at conference ‘dealing with internal issues’ but they had to do it nonetheless. Sadly the factional heat was so intense it was hard to make any objective points about the prioritisation of motions.
The conference ended with ex-Lambeth Branch Secretary Jon Rogers giving a customary speech of thanks to the president though by the time this finished the hall was mostly empty. Rogers has known Holmes for years, since before the start of UNISON and he gave a heartfelt speech in defence of his wounded comrade.
As the UNISON conference 2022 drew to a close a number of the left activists retired to the bars along the beach to drink and plan the next steps. Clearly, TFRC and the left in general needs to get better organised and it will be useful to hear from the TFRC leaders on the NEC what their plans are next. TFRC won the elections to the NEC, representing a clear desire by a large number of UNISON members for a change in the union’s direction. Delegates to conference were clearly oppositional to TFRC either for entrenched political reasons (they hate the organised socialist left and prefer the soft centre-ground, anti-class struggle politics of the traditional union leadership) or because they were convinced that they were a bunch of sexists and racists and felt horrified that they were in charge of the union. TFRC has a lot of work to do to shift the narrative around them and the belief in the union that they acted undemocratically and to build bridges with the black members’ structures. There are a lot of myths around Holmes to dispel as well – a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on and some of the delegates clearly had come to believe things about Holmes which were untrue.
Either way a conference rich in lessons for the movement and for socialists.
See you next year in Liverpool!
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