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Report on NIC-ICTU’s People's Congress 

5 February 2011

The People's Congress in the King's Hall, Belfast on the 5th of February, organized by the Northern committee of ICTU, was originally proposed as linking trade unions with community activists. In the event the 100+ who attended under the slogan "A better, fairer way" were drawn mainly from the lower levels of the trade union bureaucracy, with a minority of left activists.  The platform was a mixture of union bureaucrats and academics. The "community activists" brought forward were actually members of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or representatives of state bodies - loosely described as the poverty industry. 

Peter Bunting, representing the bureaucracy, was uncharacteristically shy. The future was up to those attending, even though the opportunity to discuss issues was very limited and no formal proposals were put.

Academic Andrew Baker set out an economic alternative. The UK debt was not remarkably high, it was held by UK pension funds and was in the main, long term.

The household debt analogy used by the UK government was a bad one. State debt was linked to the business cycle and should increase in an economic downturn.

The idea that the debt arose from Labour government spending was untrue. The deficit was due to the bank collapse. The UK debt was not exceptionally large but it was the biggest debt in the OECD group and was due to overeliance on the financial sector. The Bond markets were demanding cuts but it was growth that would drive confidence. The austerity drives did not lead to the claimed growth in the private sector but led to bloated banks absorbing public money 

Baker claimed that government policy was a result of macho posturing. What was needed was a fiscal constitution linking repayment to growth.

Baker was followed by two bureaucrats: Paul Nowak, of the TUC and Eugene McGlone of UNITE.

Nowak described the "All together" campaign. The union bureaucracy was washing its hands of industrial action. It's task was to change public opinion, to lobby MPs and persuade people to vote against Lib Dem MPs - Nowak shamelessly claimed that they had forced a major shift in public opinion in that they saw the cutbacks as unfair and that they had stood beside protesting students - a statement at variance with the facts.

Some of the preceding economic analysis swam into focus. It made some perfectly reasonable criticisms of the dangers of austerity and the possibility of state intervention to reduce the impact of the cuts. This is actually a commonplace discussion in capitalist economics and can be useful in pointing up absurdities and untruths in the British government position.  However, although the bank bailout is noted the idea that we continue to pay the bill is taken for granted. 

The TUC call the ConDem policy ideological because they aim to build the Labour vote and support a Labour cuts agenda. They speak of industrial action but component unions have already announced this - what is missing is an overall policy and strategy of resistance.

Eugene McGlone set out a policy to the right of the TUC. The immediate task was to lobby to modify the block grant from Britain to protect jobs and services. The longer-term aspiration was to build an open regional economy competing on the global economy.  ICTU accept that this requires a "rebalancing" of the economy towards private industry but stress that state support should go to industrial production. Their  "Opposition" to a cut in corporation tax is actually support. It should be aimed at capitalists who deliver on production and jobs rather than generally available.  Immediately following the conference it was revealed that the British treasury had circulated a document on corporation tax.  This proposal is much more transparent than policy in the South. Because the economy in the North is based on a block grant the proposals amount to transferring £100 million from the public purse to private industry, rising to a £300 million transfer. McGlone’s proposals amount to capitulation to capital even before formal proposals are made – the whole process taking place behind the backs of their members.

A striking element of the presentation was the absolute support for the local assembly. Another NICTU speaker, Pamela Dooley (UNISON) appealed to our rights under Good Friday Agreement - an agreement that guaranteed sectarian rights rather than human rights and which has in any case been replaced by even more reactionary deals. The economic presentation would not be out of place at a DUP conference. There was no suggestion that right-wing and sectarian political parties represented any problem and the unveiling of the alliance with local NGO's made it clear that seeking deals at the comic-opera assembly remains central.

The event was presented as a congress with an open microphone, but the dominance of the NGOs on the platform and the limited time given to speakers from the floor made it clear that all the decisions had been made. Their message was of the hardships that were to come. The task was to persuade politicians to change their mind. The Assembly elections were an opportunity to lobby the local parties.

The minority of socialist activists were sharply critical of the bureaucracy, but their complaints were about the low level of protest and lack of industrial action. Their main strategy seemed to be promoting their own election candidates, without even the limited degree of unity presented by the ULA in the south.  One or two speakers suggested that the bank debt should be repudiated, but seemed unaware that this was in direct opposition to the views of the bureaucracy. No-one given speaking rights drew attention to the slogan of the congress - "a better, fairer way" (to pay the debt), to the devastation that had fallen upon the workers in the south when the same bureaucracy, organising under the same slogan, had demobilised opposition, or to their role today in a Croke Park deal that had been bolted onto the memorandum of understanding agreed with the European Central Bank.

The real nature of the meeting was exposed when a student activist challenged claims that the TUC and National Union of Students had been supporting student protest. He was silenced with the observation that only positive comments were allowed. Later he was allowed to speak, but the majority of the speakers following essentially denounced him for breaking the unity that would allow collective defence of the poor and vulnerable.

The purpose of the Congress could not be clearer. It was not to discuss strategy but to endorse a policy of collaboration and social partnership.

A Socialist Democracy leaflet given out at the congress posed a series of questions to the bureaucracy. It was as if they had seen them in advance and answered all in the negative - there will be no resistance from that quarter.

So the People’s Congress was not to decide policy but to endorse the decisions of the bureaucracy and the better fairer way of ICTU. There will be a demonstration, but it will be designed as a mass lobby rather than a channel of resistance. Unofficial social partnership will continue with the local administration as it implements savage and irreversible cuts and we find that the bureaucrats have already signed up to a policy of “rebalancing” the economy and transferring wealth from workers to bosses. In the name of unity rank and file trade unionists and socialists are being asked to support this reactionary agenda.

The socialists there had enough numbers to mount a challenge, but only if they united in a political challenge to the bureaucracy. At the moment they are a loyal opposition raising only tactical differences.


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