By Jennie Formby, Unite Political Director
To find the most passionate debate at conference delegates usually head for the fringe. This year was no exception. On the first day Unite joined forces with the Daily Mirror to hear what life is like in ‘Real Britain’.
And they weren’t disappointed, 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith sobbed as he talked of his sister's death in abject poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He wasn’t the only one in tears as he warned that the impact of the Coalition’s welfare cuts now is as cruel and criminal as it was in his youth.
Later in the week, delegates in the Conference hall had another chance to hear Harry during the debate on the threat to the NHS. There’s no doubt that if the Tories are allowed to win the 2015 General Election they will finish what they’ve started during their disastrous time in office.
Speaking from the platform in a passionate, emotional speech, Harry moved the entire hall to tears as he explained that unless we save the NHS his ‘yesterday will be our today’.
And his rallying cry; “Mr Cameron keep your mitts off our NHS” had delegates cheering to the rafters as they leapt to their feet for a prolonged standing ovation.
Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Secretary, also gave a rousing speech, repeating his commitment that Labour would repeal the Health and Social Care Act, halt the march of privatisation and integrate health with social care.
But other than the health debate, Len McCluskey’s speech was one of the very few that had delegates on their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. He started by giving us all a reality check when he spoke of the political establishment - including Labour - of having ‘a near death experience’ in Scotland. “This was not an upsurge of narrow nationalism”, he argued, “It was an upsurge in defence of our NHS. It was an upsurge against illegal wars… endless austerity…against inequality”.
He had this appeal; “Let the Scottish referendum be the tombstone of twenty years of New Labour’s neglect of the interests of the working class.”
And with the election only months away he urged us to sweep away the Tories and elect the government the country needs with this positive message of hope;
“Ed Miliband has said that Labour gets it. That we know we must change if we are to win. The last few weeks show us how. Let’s capture that energy
That faith in the possibility of democracy making a difference. That confidence that where they see the possibility working people can shape a more equal, just and caring society and take it to every voter in the land as Labour’s offer in 2015.”
But Labour can’t do it all on their own the party needs to harness the strength of the trade unions along with collective bargaining to tackle inequality. Unions, Len said, are not just a necessity to balance the power of the employer in the workplace they balance the power of the moneyed elite in society.
And he ended with this passionate call:
“Enough with caution and hedging our economic bets.
Over the next few months we must mobilise the imagination and aspirations of millions to defeat this Coalition which has brought our country to the edge of ruin. And when we sweep away the Tories and elect the Labour government the country needs. Let’s also sweep away the fear and inertia which have shackled us too long.
And stand before British working people as the party of peace, equality and socialist change.”
After such a passionate speech, it was unsurprising that an Observer review of conference concluded that Len’s contribution was one of the few that connected with the people, although Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, also struck a chord with his powerful speech on why we should take back our railways and the utilities.
Many delegates were dismayed to hear Shadow Chancellor’s, Ed Ball’s proposal to cap welfare benefit in the name of economic credibility; a ‘credibility’ that has been defined by our opponents and the proponents of neo-economic liberalism but which doesn’t seem to hold much sway with the voters if the opinion polls are any guide.
But despite those missing paragraphs, Ed Milliband's speech was warmly welcomed, and was substantial, containing six policy priorities including halving numbers on low pay, increasing the minimum wage, offering more apprenticeships, building housing and delivering green jobs. But the highlight of all his pledges, and the one that will be central to Labour’s general election campaign, was on the NHS.
Ed promised that Labour will reverse the Tory Health and Social Care Act and end the market within our health service. There was also a commitment to invest £2.5bn to rebuild the NHS and provide 3000 midwives, 5000 care workers, 8000 doctors and 20000 nurses. This will be funded by a mansion tax on homes worth over £2M, a levy on the tobacco companies and the recovery of missing taxes from hedge funds, all of which was music to the ears of delegates.
Away from the Conference hall, key Unite speakers were involved with a number of packed fringes. There are too many to list here, but highlights included Len McCluskey speaking at the LabourList Rally on the theme of ‘Why I am Labour’; Steve Turner addressing the People’s Assembly fringe and Gail Cartmail’s speaking at an important event on the Robin Hood Tax. I also participated in an event highlighting the importance of getting more working class MPs into Parliament.
Although some felt the Conference was a bit ‘flat’, nonetheless we are just months away now from a General Election that will be the ‘fight of our lives’. Arguably, 7th May 2015 will be the most important date since the 1945 election when the Attlee government set up the welfare state and nationalised among other parts of our infrastructure, our railways, our utilities and - the jewel in Labour’s crown - established the National Health Service.
We can and must win this battle and Unite remains committed to play its part in the fight for a Labour victory.