Tribune leader, 9 October 1992

Labour’s conference decisions last week on the party’s links with the unions were a mixed bag.
Looking on the bright side, all of the conference votes insist on maintenance of strong links between party and unions. And none of them really ties the hands of Labour’s working party on union links on the question of reforming the union role in parliamentary selections and leader­ship elections. Some sort of system which ensures that trade union members who pay the political levy are given individual votes is perfectly compatible with every­thing decided in Blackpool last week, and the working party should now push ahead with a report on the various feasi­ble options.
At the same time, however, the conference votes do limit the working party’s deliberations when it comes to the block vote at Labour conference  – and that is anything but good news, for the block vote is the element of the party-union re­lationship most in need of no-holds-barred critical examination.
Of course, one problem with the block vote was addressed last week: its sheer weight, which has meant for years now that a handful of union leaders have had the ability to determine party policy re­gardless of what anyone else thinks. The unions will now control 70 per cent of conference votes rather than 90 per cent, But, welcome as this move is, it does not go very far. Even with just half of con­ference votes controlled by union leaders (the likely next stage), a handful of union leaders will still be able effectively to de­termine party policy, particularly if all the union mergers currently under dis­cussion go ahead. Even with one-third or one-quarter of the votes, the union lead­ers would have too much power. It is the block vote itself which is the problem: it is an essentially undemocratic institu­tion. By effectively voting to rule out abo­lition last week, the Labour conference did itself a grave disservice.

A missed opportunity on education
Quite the most stupid and craven de­cision at Labour conference last week was the little-noticed defeat of Com­posite 42, which called for abolition of the charitable status of public schools and demanded an end to religious segre­gation in education.
Why did the conference do it? There is no conceivable justification for public schools retaining charitable status: they are profitable businesses that do im­mense social harm and should no more be given tax breaks than tobacco conglomer­ates.
The idea that the state should sanction and subsidise the stuffing of children’s brains with the nonsense of religion is equally offensive to all but those afflicted with religious belief. If parents want their children brain-washed, there is plenty of time for it outside school hours.
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