Marching on Labour

Today was another hectic day at conference. Aren’t they all?

Caroline Lucas gave a superb keynote speech this morning. Always brilliant when she talks about the Labour government’s disgraceful and immoral foreign policy, she demanded that the whole Labour Party be called to account for the war - not just Blair.

Conference was slightly depleted today because lots of Greens have travelled to Manchester to join the huge anti-war march. They are picketing the Labour party conference, which is starting as our’s winds down. Earlier on, in her speech, Caroline had rightly pointed out that Greens are not that interested in the Labour leadership fuss. It drives us mad that people think Brown might be any different to Blair - as believable as Cameron creating an entire new Tory Party with a flick of his fringe.

The rest of my day has really been all about energy. Not expecting an immediate switch to a Green government we are spending a lot of time this year campaigning to change the government’s cosy relationship with nuclear power - whether it’s being wielded through dangerous weapons or used as an excuse not to get serious about saving energy and developing green technologies. The likely renewal of Trident is a particularly urgent problem.

This afternoon we had our first proper rehearsal for Faslane365 (the Greens are joining the Scottish Greens for a 2-day blockade of the nuclear submarine base later this year). Weeks of work fiddling around with props, and detailed planning worthy of the kind of military operation we’re totally opposed to, came off smoothly as a big gang of Greens came down to the sea front and did rather a good job of looking like a nuclear submarine. Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie came along to join us. He has already been arrested in 2004 for taking part in a blockade at Faslane, but says the Scottish police were very nice – interesting because I’m used to dealing with the Met.

My final event of the day, and the last formal event I’ll be involved in this conference has just finished: a fringe event about how we can change energy policy from the ground up by working with local councils to bring in small-scale renewable and combined heat and power (CHP) generation plants.

CHP can use a range of fuels, including fossil fuels, but saves a huge amount of energy by using both the heat and electricity generated in the plant in local buildings. Tom Tibbits our energy spokesperson pointed out that this is actually an old idea that is well worth revisiting and that Battersea Power Station in South London was originally built to both generate electricity and provide cheap heat to thousands of local residents.

Nowadays, CHP can be done without seriously affecting air quality and on a much smaller scale and (for now) the government is also providing grants to help councils and developers put it in. The money committed is pathetic (just £80 million compared with potentially £25 billion to be spent renewing Trident) so a key feature of our energy campaign is for our activists to help get as many grants taken up by local projects as possible, so that the funds are used up and the government has to admit that its energy policy is out of touch with what ordinary people want. We’ll see. There are also householder grants for renewable energy so apply now.

Well, that’s it from the Green conference. I think the coherence of this blog has declined in direct proportion to the amount of sleep I’ve had and the number of events I’ve been organising each day, so congratulations if you have managed to read this far in less than total confusion. Next week back to ‘normal’ life as a 4×4 campaigner.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.