The annual conference of the Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu) took place this year in Liverpool on 9 and 10 May.
The most controversial item on the agenda was once again a motion regarding disaffiliation from the Labour party, this year proposed by the BBC Radio and Music Production branch.
For several years past, those putting forward disaffiliation motions have found themselves the victims of procedural manoeuvring, whereby those opposed to the motion, both on the floor of the conference and on the platform, combined to cut short speakers, curtail the debate and generally prevent the arguments from being properly heard, all backed up by lengthy tirades from the leadership accusing the movers of ‘dishonesty’ and ‘duplicity’, of questioning the union’s ‘proud history’, and so on.
If the movers were in any doubt about the leadership’s readiness to debate the issue more fully this year, they were left with none when most of the text of their motion was deleted. The deleted text (which spelled out the logic behind the need to disaffiliate from Labour, as well as to defy anti-union laws that prevent workers from being effective in their struggle for jobs, pay and pensions, and to protect Britain’s remaining public services from privatisation) was described by the union’s Standing Orders Committee (SOC) as containing ‘excessive argument’ and therefore failing to comply with the rule that all propositions should be ‘addressed to conference’!
Rightly anticipating that the usual forces would be working overtime to cut short the debate once more, this year’s movers went to great lengths to make sure their arguments were heard, even if not on the conference floor.
A showing of the film Taking Liberties, documenting the near-complete abolition of civil liberties over the last 10 years of Labour government, was organised, and a leaflet detailing the attacks on working people that have been made by Labour in the last year alone was pushed under the door of every delegate’s hotel room.
The leaflet also pointed out the tricks that are regularly used to prevent a thorough debate from taking place on this (and only this!) issue every year. Naturally, the distributers were denounced from the platform for circulating ‘unapproved’ literature!
The golden opportunity for the pro-Labour leadership came in the form of a (probably unintentional) spoiler emergency motion from the Post-Production and Facilities branch, which, following the local election losses for Labour, called for a ballot of all Bectu members to decide whether the union should step up its involvement within Labour, continue its affiliation unchanged, or disaffiliate.
A far weaker motion than the one proposed by the BBC Radio and Music Production branch (and one, which, moreover, there was no real reason to accept onto the agenda in the first place), this was placed much earlier on the agenda by the SOC, giving general secretary Gerry Morrissey ample opportunity to deliver his usual tirade about the time-honoured Labour traditions of the trade-union movement and to call, in addition, on the movers of the original motion to do the ‘honourable’ thing and withdraw their own motion if this one should fall, which it duly did.
However, the movers refused to withdraw their motion, so, sure enough, just as the proposing delegate arrived at the podium to speak, a delegate from the floor called ‘move next business’, effectively asking conference not only to stop the debate from taking place, but to refuse even to hear the motion. So much for the much-vaunted democracy of our brave trade unions!
Possibly embarrassed by the fact that just such tactics had been explicitly denounced in the circulated leaflet, the platform made a weak attempt to disassociate itself from this unnecessarily hasty move, allowing the mover of the motion her three minutes before duly taking the vote and moving on to the next business.
The very fact of so much hostility, however, tells its own tale. In Bectu, as in most other British unions today, the credibility of the labour-loyal leadership is hanging by a thread, and, despite their confident bombast about the grass-roots support for the Labour link, no-one is anxious for either members or delegates to be allowed to hear all the arguments against its continuance – or for a ballot to show just how many delegates are ready to support a move to break it, which even if not won, would certainly put heart into those already fighting and many more who are wavering on the brink.
Dirty tricks notwithstanding, the Labour link remains the biggest obstacle to an effective working-class fightback, and congratulations are due to all those across the union movement who have recognised this and continue to fight for its removal.
Readers may be interested to note that in their reports of the conference, both the Bectu website and the Morning Star focused on the rejection of a much weaker, emergency proposition on affiliation and completely avoided all mention of the main anti-Labour proposition or the tactics used to avoid discussing it.
> Original motion (scroll down to AP15)
> Spoiler motion (scroll down to Emergency prop 1/08)