Stan Keable attended the January 17 meeting of Unison activists
Unison members must be wondering what happened to the superior strength, the greater protection against government attacks, that would result from the merging of three public-sector trade unions into one mega-union in 1993, when the National and Local Government Officers Association, the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees joined forces. With almost 1.3 million members, Unison is second in size to Unite, whose 1.4 million members are mainly in the private sector, and twice as big as the next largest union, the GMB.
Today, however, faced with continual public-service cuts, job losses and increasing workloads, instead of feeling the strength of the union around them, Unison branches are, it seems, left to fight alone.
A privileged, unelected, overpaid and unaccountable bureaucratic caste enjoys the comforts of the union’s plush Euston Road offices, imploring lay activists to ‘recruit, recruit, recruit’, while giving little or no help to the embattled branches on the frontline of austerity. Speaker after speaker at the unexpectedly packed Reclaim the Union meeting (around 120 attended) in the Mechanics’ Institute in Manchester confirmed what it means to be a Unison branch secretary today: “loads of stress, no money and no support”, as Kirklees local government branch secretary and would-be left general secretary candidate Paul Holmes put it. Comrades gasped in shock and disbelief when Paul told us that incumbent general secretary Dave Prentis had turned down invitations to appear on the BBC’s Question time panel 17 times. We expect our gen sec to seize every opportunity to fight our corner.
The purpose of the meeting was to coordinate left nominations for Unison’s national executive council elections, which branches must submit before the February 20 deadline. In the first half of the meeting, left slates were agreed, or were in preparation, for each region and each service group (local government, health, education, water, police and justice, etc) as well as for ‘self-organised groups’ (unfortunately referred to as SOGs) of black and young members.
The process of adopting left slates of NEC candidates was carried on harmoniously, with chairperson Max Watson, convenor of the NEC left caucus, telling people to “get together in the break and sort it out”, wherever there were too many, or too few, candidates for the available seats. However, the “open discussion on the nature of the campaign: slogans, demands, etc” was totally unfit for purpose. Speakers were allowed two minutes each, so it was impossible to develop, or challenge, an idea adequately. No motions were proposed, so the campaign has no concrete policies. The level of unity achieved was simply the elimination of competition between left candidates, but with no explicit agreement at all about exactly what the campaign stands for.
Of course, everyone was against the coalition government, public- service cuts and austerity, and wanted a fighting, democratic union, instead of one suffocating under the “dead hand of the bureaucracy”, as one comrade put it. But democratising the union so that its officials are controlled by the membership, and winning rank-and- file support for a positive socialist programme, will require much more than an ephemeral election campaign to replace one set of bureaucrats by another. It will require the building of a membership organisation, where the politics and tactics of the campaign can be argued out openly and determined democratically, by voting – not left in the hands of the NEC left caucus to resolve elsewhere, after the meeting. The opportunity was missed to launch such an organisation.
Incidentally, I am still a member of Unison United Left, but it is evidently now defunct, and no-one even mentioned it. It was never able to achieve real unity of the left in Unison, after the Socialist Party in England and Wales withdrew in 2004 rather than subordinate itself to the larger Socialist Workers Party. Despite this UUL struggled on, at the time the SWP was engaged in its disastrous Respect popular front. However, it seems to have finally come to an end in 2013, when Marshajane Thompson and other feminists pulled out over the SWP’s handling of the rape allegations against ‘comrade Delta’.
They attempted to relaunch the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic Unison1 left network based on the divisive ‘safe spaces’ principle: “What we won’t do is seek, jointly, to be the ‘leadership’ of the ‘left’ or ‘rank and file’ alongside those who can tolerate the treatment of women by the leadership of the SWP. We will not organise alongside nor devote any energy to promoting those who support the SWP Central Committee.” These are Marshajane Thompson’s words.2 Excluding what is still the largest group on the British left is not the best way to build left unity, which requires toleration of the views of others, alongside unity in action. Needless to say, no-one mentioned the CFDU either. It was stillborn – the most recent post on its website being October 28 2013.
Gen sec candidate
The second half of the meeting consisted of hustings for the single left general secretary candidate which everyone desired. Unlike the NEC elections, this is not urgent, as no timetable has been set, and the contest may take place late in 2015. Unfortunately, this was not explained at the start. Had the lack of urgency been made clear, and had an alternative timetable and procedure been proposed for adoption of a candidate, the meeting might have opted to postpone a decision. As it was, the meeting voted (68 for, 22 against, 24 abstentions) in favour of adopting a candidate by majority vote of those present. This would seem to indicate (roughly, of course) the presence of a solid group of 24 SPEW members or disciplined supporters, a non-aligned group of 22 or more who preferred delay, but were not acting under SPEW discipline, and a substantially larger bloc of SWPers, perhaps Labour left supporters and others who had come expecting a vote.
The three runners on offer were given 10 minutes each to present their case, followed by two-minute “questions” (or ‘contributions’) from the rest of us, and two minutes each for the prospective candidates to reply at the end. A frustrating experience, and the wrong way to approach the matter. Surely, agreed policies for the Reclaim the Union campaign should be adopted first, and then a candidate chosen who would promote those policies.
The prospective candidates were: Paul Holmes, a Labour Party member for 35 years (but “very angry”), who stood in 2010 as the candidate of the so-called ‘United Left’, coming third with 13% of the vote in a 14% turnout3; established leftwing front runner Roger Bannister of SPEW, who came second last time with a respectable 20%; and the SWP’s Karen Reissman, a first-timer.
In the 2005 and 2010 contests, the left had failed to agree on a single candidate – as may yet be the case this time – and Roger Bannister, although nominated by fewer branches than his ‘United Left’ rivals, had gained by far the biggest vote. He bluntly announced that he would stand again this time, no matter what this meeting decided, unless he was convinced (in other words, unless SPEW was convinced) that another left candidate stood a better chance of winning. SPEW’s Glen Kelly backed this up by announcing that their supporters would not participate in a selection vote, if one was taken at this time.
Needless to say, this did not go down well, and does not augur well for the prospects of uniting the left in Unison, which can only be based on voluntary, democratic unity – the acceptance of decisions by majority voting, not the “consensus” which SPEW speakers claimed to be seeking. One speaker asked if we really wanted a president like comrade Bannister, who puts two fingers up to democracy. Isn’t that what we are trying to overcome? Another speculated that SPEW had done a count, estimated that their candidate did not have majority support in the room, and then cynically announced they would not accept a vote.
Decision-making by “consensus” necessarily means behind-the- scenes negotiations (not transparent democracy) – in this case between the little ‘revolutionary’ bureaucrats of the two groups which currently dominate the Unison left: SPEW and the Socialist Workers Party. It excludes, disenfranchises, depoliticises and demobilises socialists who do not belong to these two groups and the mass of rank-and-file Unison members that must be organised into the Reclaim the Union campaign if it is to be effective – not as voting fodder to elect an alternative bureaucracy, but as active members with equal rights to determine the politics of the campaign. And to develop an ongoing struggle beyond a single round of elections. Promoting ‘revolutionary’ bureaucrats is an unconvincing and ineffective way of challenging the bigger Labourite bureaucrats in control of the union.
In his defence, comrade Bannister pointed out that SPEW had made it quite clear, throughout the preparatory discussions of the NEC left caucus which convened the meeting, that it did not want, and would not accept, a vote to select a single left candidate at this time. Such a vote had not been put on the agenda of the meeting, the actual wording being: “General secretary left candidate debate”. This agenda item, of course, contributed heavily to attracting the unexpectedly high attendance, and many comrades said that they had come expecting a vote to select a single left candidate.
But, whereas SPEW had instructed its members not to participate in any such vote, the SWP’s leaflet, A united left to meet the challenge, primed its members to force the issue – in the full knowledge that SPEW would not accept the result if it lost the vote: “We have to hold a measured debate today with the aim of reaching agreement on a united candidate.”
At the end of the hustings session, the votes were as follows: Roger Bannister – nil; Karen Reissman – 61; Paul Holmes – 15; abstentions – 41. So despite the total abstention by SPEW supporters, who will evidently not accept the result anyway, the SWP’s candidate gained an absolute majority of those present. Arguments made in her favour included that she is a woman like 84% of Unison members, and there has not yet been a woman gen sec; that she is a leading health service activist, and the fight to defend the NHS will be of key significance both in Unison’s general secretary election and in the general election.
Against comrade Reissman were those claiming that the SWP is toxic. In fact, not only is she an SWP activist, but, in the words of Labour left activist Jon Rogers, she “chaired the session of a conference of her discredited party, at which a victim of rape was denied a platform”.4
Cryptically, Paul Holmes said that he expects to see four candidates for the position of Unison general secretary, as there has been a “tear” in the union bureaucracy. So he is expecting the right wing to be divided this time, but he is also expecting the left to remain divided, fielding two rival candidates, as in the previous two elections. However, the election has not yet been called, so there is still time to put things right, as comrade Rogers suggests: “Neither Roger nor Paul indicated that they felt bound by this avoidable foolishness – and the ‘left’ (such as we are) will need to meet again at national delegate conference to try to take the decision which we should not have pretended to take today”.5
1. https://fightingdemocraticunison.wordpress. com. The original CFDU was one of the groups that came together to form the United Left in 2001.
2. www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/10/25/ workers-liberty-statement-split-unison-united-left: see comments after the article.
3. Incumbent ‘moderate’ gen sec Dave Prentis gained 67% in 2010, which means that less than 10% of those eligible to vote backed him.
4. http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/ one-step-forward-one-step-back.html.