Unison and the politics of class

Why does a leading member of Socialist Resistance give her backing to a free-market attack on the disabled and elderly? Tony Greenstein reports on Unison's support for the 'personalisation' of care

When the International Marxist Group splintered into various fragments, the only one to retain any class politics was the International Socialist Group. Socialist Action degenerated into a Ken Livingstone support group and uncritical supporter of the anti-imperialist movement leaderships, as did the Communist League. The ISG - now merged with Socialist Resistance - had a number of very good trade union militants, not least the late Greg Tucker, but it suffered from the same methodology as the other IMG splinters: namely the fact that it has never reconciled the demands of autonomy for oppressed groups, on the one hand, and the class politics and unity of the working class on the other.

It is no surprise that this sometimes produces, as in the case of Terry Conway and Alan Thornett, what can only be described as political schizophrenia. It has only just played itself out in Respect.

On November 2 I was a delegate from Brighton and Hove Unison to the national conference of the union’s new community and voluntary sector. This effectively consists of everyone who is not in the health, police, energy or local government branches. It is a bureaucratic solution to the real problem of how workers in the voluntary sector, with thousands of different employers, from tiny to very large charities and housing associations, can organise together.

I came to the conference with an open mind, but I was taken aback by one resolution on ‘personalisation’. This was the New Labour buzzword, whereby the disabled could ‘personalise’ the care they get to suit their own needs. In theory it is fine, but context is everything. It was part of Blair’s so-called ‘choice agenda’, designed to atomise the disabled and elderly and at the same time strip local authorities of their social care functions.

Unison bureaucrats see a silver lining in everything. If hanging was being brought back they would probably campaign to ensure that the noose was comfortable - or perhaps call for the condemned person to be given a choice over the method of execution. Their faith in the good intentions of the government are legendary. Just as their trust in their members is negligible. It should have come as no surprise, then, that they bought into ‘personalisation’ and ‘individual budgeting’.

I have joint care of an autistic boy, Daniel. When he became difficult to control, whilst going through puberty, we put pressure on the council to provide care and respite services. At first the council itself provided outings two to three times a week, but then we were told that instead we were to be allocated a budget to allow us to exercise ‘choice’ (although continuing with local authority care was not a choice we could opt for).

I learnt the hard way what individual budgeting means in practice. Whereas the local authority can do things relatively cheaply, as it has the advantage of economies of scale, this was not open to us. So I had, with some difficulty to recruit carers and pay them and sort the tax out, fill in reams of forms for the local authority to manage the budget, face a situation where if I could not find someone I had to use an agency, which in practice charged double or triple - all so I could get a break. And this was while I combined working with being a full-time carer. As some comrades know, I often took Daniel to meetings with me.

Apart from anything else, in rainy, cold and inclement weather individual carers had no base to go back to and in reality they had to come to my home to look after Daniel, which somewhat defeated the purpose of the exercise. When he settled down following a change of medication, a number of charities were sought to take Daniel for walks. Most simply did not have the resources. Mencap, operating out of a temporary building in Newhaven, was able to take the contract on, but it had recruiting problems and no base.

So I assumed that when I saw Terry Conway - a member of the service group executive, no less - at the community sector conference I could rely on a fellow socialist to support my opposition to resolution 9 on personalisation. After all, it also called for support for the ‘national care service’ first mooted in New Labour’s green paper on care under Andy Burnham MP earlier this year.

The whole point of the national care service was to get the elderly to pay for their own care via a £20,000 levy. That proposal may have been dropped, but the principle remains the same. The green paper openly spoke about abolishing mobility allowance (the care component of the disability living allowance for those 65 and over). Cameron has now gone one better and is proposing to abolish disability living allowance, the major benefit for disabled people, altogether. It is to be replaced by a ‘personal independence payment’ run by a private company. The national care service will, of course, be subject to the cuts, so promises made now are worthless in any case.

Yet at a lunchtime fringe meeting Terry Conway went out of her way to inform delegates after I had made a well received speech denouncing ‘choice’ in care that she opposed my position. Why? Because the Unison disabled members group supported personalisation. In the name of the autonomy of the oppressed Terry Conway, one of the most experienced ISG/SR cadres, is backing a free-market political position that can only harm disabled and elderly people.

Disabled members in Unison are not typical. They can work. Most disabled people cannot. Daniel never will, unless his employment is structured to his needs and he is carefully guided. So the least disabled people, along with charity managers who earn their living off the backs of the disabled, have come out with a position harmful to most disabled people - and someone who calls herself a revolutionary ends up, in the name of ‘autonomy’, supporting reactionary positions. In practice this is not autonomy, but separatism.

We all remember the famous photograph of Tony Blair with his 100 Blair babes, crooks all. This was the culmination of feminism’s fight for equal representation, a worthy aim to be sure, but not one that benefited working class women. The sisterhood even set up, with Patricia Hewitt as the convenor, a cosy little group that could wheel and deal to get the sisters favours and lobbying arrangements before Hewitt, Hoon and Byers (the £5,000 a day taxi service!) were caught with their paws in the till.

Nor is this an isolated incident. When earlier in the year I organised an open letter from over 200 people to the BBC protesting at their biased coverage of the murders on the Mavi Marmara, the ship taking aid to Gaza that was attacked by Israeli troops, Ms Conway refused to sign (unlike other SR members) because of the following paragraph:

“The BBC repeatedly referred, in its hostile questioning of returning activists, to the fact that they had ‘provoked’ the attack on them. One wonders whether a householder would also be accused of ‘provoking’ a violent burglar? It is no longer fashionable to label as ‘provocative’ women who are raped, so why then is it acceptable to describe human rights and aid workers who are murdered or wounded as ‘provocative’ for having sought to breach an illegal blockade?”

When I wrote back to Terry, who was the only woman who objected to this, pointing out it was simply an analogy, she did not respond. Is rape, like the holocaust, so unique that it is impermissible to make any comparisons or analogies with them? This is reminiscent of Zionism, but Ms Conway’s radical feminism is also a form of separatism.

We see this with particular clarity in the arrest and incarceration of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange on false ‘rape’ charges. How the ruling class uses feminism, from Afghanistan to Wikileakers, should be a source of discussion. Instead the likes of Terry Conway so lack confidence in their own positions that they seem unable to debate them. And meanwhile the woman who accused Assange is now shown to be have links to anti-Castro CIA groups. Quite a dilemma for Terry Conway and her radical feminist (spiced with socialist) politics.

Terry Conway is not a corrupt member of New Labour. But the politics of balancing class and particular social oppressions is too much for her. Whereas Socialist Action merely gave up and dumped class, Terry and SR are still valiantly trying to ride two horses. And in the process autonomous groups are considered to be one homogenous mass. They have no class differentiation. This is where the absurdity of the politics of ‘the movements’ leads - to a de facto alliance with the right wing in Unison.