Monday, 19 October 2015
STUC General Secretary at SNP conference
On the morning of Saturday 17th October, Grahame Smith our General Secretary got to his feet, delivered a speech to SNP conference and received a standing ovation. It was described as an ‘historic’ moment. STUC leaders haven’t tended to be sought for, or to seek out, prime platform spots at the SNP conference.
The subject was the Trade Union Bill and the SNP took the unusual step of suspending their Standing Orders to allow Grahame to speak in the debate, on a motion proposed by Chris Stephens MP and seconded by Roseanna Cunningham MSP.
Now, to be sure, for me as a veteran of student, Labour Party and trade union democracy, it seemed an odd procedure. But that is a matter for the SNP. For us it represented an opportunity to speak to the party of Government, supported by at least half of the Scottish population (and of trade union members) on the greatest existential threat to our movement for a generation, during a debate on a motion which was completely opposed the Bill. Grahame also used the opportunity to raise the highly concerning current threat to the Scottish steel industry.
It is however, a decision that has been criticised. A number of trade union and Labour activists took to social media to accuse the STUC of ‘endorsing the SNP’ ‘abandoning Labour’ and ‘naively falling into an SNP trap’.
The argument (I think) goes thus. The SNP are a right wing, anti-trade union party masquerading as the opposite. By speaking during one of their debates the STUC has effectively endorsed them and in so doing damaged Labour.
Just for the record, the STUC is a not a political party affiliated organisation, most of its unions are not affiliated to Labour and probably fewer than half of its members pay the Labour levy. The STUC has spoken at Labour Party conferences for as long as anyone can remember, and last week, Grahame spoke at the Green Party conference. Were a similar invitation to be received from, say, the Tories, I would be recommending that we accepted, though I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that the assembled delegates would like what they heard!
It is certainly true that the SNP was keen to highlight the fact that Grahame was speaking at the conference and that a key theme of the weekend was, as a number of journalists noted, a clear attempt to connect with working class voters. On the Trade Union Bill, their MPs are pledged to vote out the whole Bill, and are working closely with the STUC, TUC and Labour MPs to effect its defeat. The Scottish Government opposes the Bill in its entirety (including, incidentally the political fund clauses even though it might be to their advantage); is investigating whether an argument can be made for a Legislative Consent Motion, and is considering how it can refuse to co-operate with legislation if it is enacted.
It should be recognised and applauded, that Scottish Labour, including Labour councils have gone somewhat further than this. Some have already stated their intention to refuse to comply with aspects of the Bill such as caps on facility time; the removal of the right of employees to pay their union dues through the payroll; and the use of agency workers to break strikes. The Green Party has adopted a similar view.
This is enormously welcome and, whilst the primary aim at this point is to defeat the Bill, the STUC will continue to press all parties, including the SNP, to support a non-compliance position, if this nasty Bill in enacted.
This approach reflects a wider one, which will continue. When the SNP Government does things which we disagree with, we will say so - as we did, last Wednesday when we criticised the First Minster on youth employment figures.
But what we won’t do is to pass up the opportunity to work with the Scottish Government in areas of broad agreement, nor with the SNP on our key priority campaigns.
There are some, on all sides of the party political divide in Scotland who would like the STUC to fight a proxy battle on their behalf to do damage to the other. Our members and their interests are implicitly seen as acceptable collateral in a bigger war for political power.
This isn’t going to happen.