How much can change in a year. After the concerns of spring 2017, delegates to regional forum were buoyed up by a better than expected general election for Labour and the Tory government still on the back foot. Read on for our full Labour Link forum 2018 report
Reflecting this spirit and the upcoming local elections, the theme for the forum was “winning elections with Labour”. Over thirty delegates from Penzance to Swindon made the journey to Croyde Bay, braving (accurate) forecasts of snow to take part in shaping UNISON South West’s political strategy.
The event began with a discussion on the Friday evening. Delegates put the case for what the first act of the next Labour government should be. Showing the diverse knowledge of the delegates, proposals included a universal basic income, banning zero-hours contracts, a living wage for all, and saving the NHS from cuts and privatisation. Following a heartfelt speech from a delegate from Dorset, the prize went to her suggestion to get local authorities building council homes again by lifting the borrowing cap for housing.
Starting the forum with this powerful session on the real benefits members need a Labour government to deliver ASAP set the tone. Delegates were left with no doubt about how important it is to get rid of the Tories at the next opportunity, and set about planning the steps to get there.
Still a big hill to climb
A day of training on Saturday kicked off with South West Labour Party regional director Phil Gaskin talking delegates through the electoral challenge in our region. We could be proud of four existing seats secured and three more won in 2017. More people voted Labour in the South West in 2017 than in 1997 – every single constituency saw the Labour vote share rise. Unfortunately, the Conservatives’ vote share went up in the region too, and Labour fell further behind in key seats including Plymouth Moor View.
The results painted a divided picture. Plymouth itself illustrates the hill for Labour to climb. In Sutton and Devonport, traditionally a tough fight, Luke Pollard stormed home, gaining the seat with a 16.6% increase. In Moor View, on the other hand, the Conservatives secured what had been a tight gain for them in 2015, with an extra 14.3% of the vote share.
Across the South West, Labour did better in urban, liberal-minded areas with universities. The Party’s past strength in some white working class areas did not show the same resurgence. To form a government after the next election, Labour needs to bridge this gap. The trade union link will be vital in making this happen, but the movement needs to redouble its efforts to make sure the Party is relevant everywhere.
Labour won’t win a general election from a standing start, and Phil encouraged delegates to give Labour a run-up with success in the local elections. He encouraged delegates to join TULO campaign days, and to contribute to electing Labour councils however they can. Winning Swindon for the first time in eighteen years would send a powerful message that Labour is on its way to government.
Meeting the challenge of the Trade Union Act
Delegates were brought back down to earth with a session on changes to UNISON’s political funds. The Trade Union Act has forced the union to make difficult changes to our Campaign Fund and UNISON Labour Link fund. We now operate an “opt-in” system, where members have to choose to pay an extra 5% on top of their core subs.
This change from our previous opt-out system means branches will have to work doubly hard to demonstrate the benefits of UNISON Labour Link (and the non-affiliated Campaign Fund). Delegates were clear that asking new members to pay more would need to be justified by what they got for paying in. New resources and training will be rolled out to branches in the coming months to help the transition. The Trade Union Act is a pernicious law that a Labour government ought to make a priority of repealing. In the meantime UNISON will rise to the challenge to protect our political funds.
Questions and comments from delegates included:
- UNISON Labour Link (and the rest of the TU affiliations) is what makes Labour a unique workers party
- Paying in to a political fund is a right, which the Tory TU Act curtails
- How can we ensure people can change funds easily down the line, if they become more politically engaged?
- The contrast between Labour’s trade union money and Tory big corporation money
- How can we follow up online joiners to encourage them to join a political fund?
- MPs including Labour ones need better explanation of what Labour Link does
- What does a member “get” from being in the fund? Need to be clear on the extra rights it gives them.
- Who is an effective messenger getting people into the fund – particularly for online joiners?
From UNISON member to shadow minister?
Our third session focused on the support UNISON Labour Link can give to members on their own political journeys. Some of Labour’s best and brightest MPs came up through UNISON. Angela Rayner was a care worker and is now shadow secretary of state for education. Eleanor Smith was a nurse and now advises the party’s home affairs team. Rosie Duffield worked as a teaching assistant before her shock win in Canterbury. In the last few months, Mhairi Threlfall was selected as the Labour candidate for Filton and Bradly Stoke, and Jayne Kirkham won Candy Atherton’s old seat on Cornwall Council. Two South West UNISON members ready to put our priorities into policy.
For over a century, trade unions (and the Labour Party they created) have been the working person’s route into Parliament and the country is much better for it. Keeping up this path with a new generation of UNISON MPs is an important task for Labour Link. Equally important, is the work our members do, using skills learned in the trade unions on councils, in their CLPs, and in voluntary roles. Delegates split along county lines to identify their aspirations and the skills and support they’d need from UNISON Labour Link to get there. It may be too early to tell who the next MPs will be, but we know the training programme that needs to be put on to boost up as many people as possible.
Meeting our future Labour MPs
To end the day, a panel of Labour parliamentary candidates answered questions about their roles, ideas, and working with unions. Fran Boait (Gloucester), Paul Farmer (Camborne and Redruth), and Neil Guild (2015 Taunton Deane) gave an inside perspective on campaigning in target seats, but also the importance of fighting a strong campaign in areas the party is less likely to win. All made clear they were keen to support union campaigns and would appreciate invitations to events, briefings, and updates. The candidates also highlighted the value of trade union members in their campaigns, not just out doorknocking, but also spreading the word at work and using wider skills to help run the campaign. Delegates thanked the candidates for making the trip to Croyde and wished them good luck in the marathon ahead.
The business of the forum was conducted on the Sunday, at a swift pace to allow delegates to leave before the next snow blizzard hit. The results for elections were as follows:
UNISON South West Labour Link committee 2018-19
- Neil Guild, Lesley Discombe, Sue Nash, Val Walker, Sharon Turner, Paul Stone, Kev Treweeks, Craig Martin
- SOG / regional committee places: Becky Brookman, Sharon Foster, Fiona Hutton
That leaves one open space and three SOG/RC spaces to fill. Please get in touch if you are interested in being on the committee, bearing in mind it must be at least 50% women.
National UNISON Labour Link forum, July 2018
- Melinda Manickam, Craig Martin, Sue Nash, Paul Stone, Sharon Turner, Val Walker
- Ex-officio places as delegates to Labour conference: Lesley Discombe, Sharon Foster
South West members of UNISON delegation to Labour Party conference, September 2018
- Lesley Discombe, Sharon Foster
In 2018 we need to make UNISON Labour Link even stronger so we are ready for an election whenever it happens, and the prospect of a Labour government.
There are many ways to get involved and new ideas and people are always welcome.
- Become a delegate to your CLP to keep up the connections between your branch and local labour parties
- Stand for UNISON Labour Link officer on your branch committee
- Stand for trade union liaison officer (TULO) in your CLP
- Put yourself forward to be a council candidate, or a parliamentary candidate
To find out more on any of these roles or to get involved in a different way, just talk to your local UNISON branch, or email Fred on firstname.lastname@example.org