The common diversion from any debate about the suspension of elections is that “Conference will decide” and so there’s no point getting tangled up in the matter until then. But with the Standing Orders Committee report now online that big debate is finally in sight.
But what immediately strikes you, reading the motions in the opening general debate of Conference, is that the debate has been reduced to a purely theoretical question. Motion A1 asks that we endorse the NEC decision, while motion A2 asks that we censure it. But both accept that the suspension has happened and elections won’t be back until 2016, while laying out near identical actions to take the union forward. The reinstatement of this year’s elections isn’t even on the table.
Sure, motions A4 to A6 all call for the reinstatement of elections this year, but they’re not part of the general debate and won’t be heard if motion A1 passes. This leaves supporters of reinstatement with an uphill struggle – because even if we succeed to censure the NEC by getting A2 passed over A1, we then have to have a whole extra fight to get elections reinstated in the current year, leaving the door open for the NEC to take a censure (which means nothing in tangible terms) but still get exactly what they want.
The bizarre ordering of the Finance section (including the existence of motion A3 which will only be heard at all in the highly unlikely event that both A1 and A2 fall) not only gives the NEC a greater chance of getting its way even if a slap on the wrist results, but allows the subject of elections – in potentially being debated not once but up to five times due to the fellings and order of debate – to filibuster all other questions of finance.
It is also worth noting that while a branch is left to move its motion only once at the time in the agenda when it is up for discussion, the NEC faces no such restraints. Mark Serwotka and Janice Godrich each have guest speaker slots in the Group Conferences. When National Conference opens Godrich will make the President’s Address, Serwotka will present the Annual Report and Chris Baugh will present the Finance Report.
These are necessary formalities, of course, but we should be under no illusions that they won’t also be additional moving speeches for motion A1.
If the Unite debate last year is any indication, the NEC will also give itself a second speaker to make a right of reply to motion A2. In a general debate between motions that all come from branches, this simply doesn’t happen. Branches mandated by members will not get away with putting two speakers up in the same debate, and rightly so given time constraints, but in our member-led union the NEC is a law unto itself and its right to stack the debate in a bid to ensure that it is only instructed to do what it already wants to do anything goes.
This doesn’t make winning the debate impossible, as the defeat of the NEC motion on Unite last year shows. It just means that we can’t take anything for granted. More branches put motions to Conference condemning the suspension of elections than supporting it. The task now is to make sure that is reflected in the general debate and in the vote.
The NEC stands for its own self-preservation, while we stand for democratic decision making as a principle rather than a convenience to be cast aside in a crisis. Which side wins will say an awful lot about where our union goes in the future.