Even for activists experienced in the ways of the trade union bureaucracy, first time exposure to the annual congress of the Scottish TUC usually comes as a shock.
Most issues at the STUC are resolved by the members of the General Council before the delegates even arrive at the conference hall.
Motions appear on the agenda only if there is already broad agreement and little possibility of public disunity. Delegates have tended to be embedded in the bureaucracy.
As a result, the unanimity of the voting usually resembles that of the Ukrainian Communist Party circa 1951 – a comparison many STUC stalwarts would regard as a compliment.
But at the 110th congress in Glasgow last week, the facade of unity was blown apart. The issue was a statement which the General Council had produced calling for support for Labour in the Scottish parliamentary and council elections on 3 May.
Ten years ago, this would have been passed overwhelmingly. This year the statement was only passed by the General Council by one vote – 14 to 13. Gordon Brown was due to speak, but failed to show – no doubt calculating what it would look like for him to be met by a demonstration in a territory he is supposed to control.
Labour is facing electoral meltdown in Scotland. There is a real possibility that Labour may come second for the first time since 1955, this time to the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The local elections are being conducted under proportional representation for the first time, as a concession to Liberal Democrat coalition partners. This means many Labour fiefdoms will disappear.
There are two reasons for this prospective sea-change in Scottish politics. The first is the lack of any positive change in Scotland. Most of the achievements of which Labour boasts – more jobs and economic growth – are British-wide, leaving aside the low wage nature of the jobs.
Those reforms which have distinguished Scotland from England – free care for the elderly and the refusal to introduce top-up fees – are not being emphasised. This is partly because they are costly and frowned upon by Gordon Brown, and partly because they are Liberal Democrat policies.
But the real issue is what Labour has done at the British and international level, above all in Iraq.
The divisions inside the STUC reflect those within the Scottish working class. The debate on the statement was delayed until the end of the conference. By then three Labour ministers had appeared, including first minister Jack McConnell, to get delegates in a suitably grateful state of mind.
But Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Bob Crow of the RMT had already made contributions asking why we should vote for a party that had pledged to cut 100,000 civil service jobs, refused to renationalise the rail and sided with the employers.
Good questions, which were not answered by claims that Labour “understands” trade unions and anyway, the alternatives to Labour are worse.
The discussion was dominated by Labour supporters from affiliated unions such as Amicus and the T&G emphasising that the only alternative to Labour was the SNP. There was great deal of resistance to this argument. Delegates from the RMT and the NUJ opposed the statement.
Janice Godrich from the PCS (which abstained) explained that since her union was taking action against low pay, compulsory redundancies and privatisation, members would not understand if delegates supported the party responsible.
The vote was won by the loyalists, but it looked like more delegates abstained than voted for the statement. Just because unions support Labour does not mean that they will not take up good positions on other issues. A T&G delegate who spoke for Labour in the debate also made an excellent contribution at a Stop the War fringe meeting.
The fact that such fragmentation is occurring within this most bureaucratic of labour movement organisations shows that the long dominance of Labour in Scotland is drawing to a close. That can only open up possibilities for socialists.
Neil Davidson was a PCS delegate to the Scottish TUC. He writes here in a personal capacity