Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - everything to play for?

With one week to go until the deadline for nominations in the UNISON General Secretary election it seems clear that Christina McAnea will finish with the largest number of nominations in each category of nominating body (branches, Regions, Service Groups) as well as having the nomination of the National Executive Council (NEC) (however questionable).


In previous UNISON General Secretary elections, the candidate with the most nominations has gone on to win the election, but this election is already different in a number of respects – and today, rank and file challenger, Paul Holmes, became the first lay member candidate to secure the nomination of two Regions, when UNISON's largest Region (North West) joined the South East in supporting his candidacy. Paul had of course earlier become the first rank and file candidate to win the nomination of a Service Group Executive – also the largest.


The other novelty in this election is that there are two senior officials in contention, neither of whom is an incumbent. Roger McKenzie may be trailing Christina McAnea in nominations but he has secured impressive political endorsements, including from former Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the value of which may amount to something of a "wild card" in this election.


Since the NEC of the Union has decided that the winner of this election (like previous such elections) will be decided on a "simple majority" ("First Past the Post") basis – unlike their own decision as to whom to nominate – it is perfectly possible that a candidate who secures less than an overall majority will win (as happened in 1995 and 2015). Any one of the three main candidates will emerge from the nomination period feeling that they could emerge victorious.


As this campaign began, I was worried that the two candidates promising change (each in their own way) would split the vote for change but as the campaign has developed it has become clear that the candidates are not simply differentiated on that one dimension. It is equally clear that there isn't a static pool of votes to be shared between the candidates. Given that turnout in the last General Secretary election fell below 10% a lot may depend upon how successful each campaign is in mobilising members to vote.


In this election, the more we find out the less we know.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - further details of the NEC nomination called into question

Today, 16th September, UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) nomination was secured for Christina McAnea using an unprecedented procedural move. UNISON's NEC has never – as I observed earlier this afternoon used an exhaustive voting system for any previous decision about a General Secretary nomination, and a preferential voting system (such as a Single Transferable Vote (STV)) will not be used for the vote itself which members will have from 28 October.

Further information has now come to my attention about how it was decided at the eleventh hour, inside the actual (virtual) NEC meeting, to use this method of exhaustive voting for the first time, apparently for fear of the rank and file change candidate Paul Holmes winning the vote. The proposed change of voting method was not notified prior to the meeting.

This decision caused huge controversy. By the time the decision to use STV was taken, 70 minutes of the scheduled 90 minutes had been taken up. This meant the meeting would considerably overrun, arguably breaching UNISON's rules on equality. (This would not have happened had the issue of the method of voting been dealt with in advance - as it certainly should have been - and gives the impression that those making the proposal only did so having "done the maths" about how the vote in the meeting would be likely to turn out.)

I understand that ninety-minute meetings have been agreed as the maximum permitted time for virtual meetings in order to maintain the participation both of disabled members and of representatives who have to attend to their work commitments. The scheduled meeting over-ran by a full hour.

I understand that the details of the voting was as follows;

In the first round of voting, votes were:

Christina McAnea, 22; Paul Holmes, 22; Roger McKenzie, 12; Hugo Pierre 4.

In the second round of voting, votes were:

Christina McAnea, 23; Paul Holmes, 25; Roger McKenzie, 11.

In the third round of voting, votes were:

Christina McAnea, 29; Paul Holmes, 26; Abstentions, 5.

Christina McAnea therefore "won" the vote, by the unprecedented use of exhaustive voting, the proposal to use which had not been notified prior to the meeting, and without receiving backing from a majority of the NEC members present.

Paul Holmes was only put into a close second place when supporters of Roger McKenzie decided either to abstain or support Christina McAnea in the final round of voting.

It is clear that Christina McAnea only won this vote by a hair's breadth through this procedural device, as a result of NEC members giving them the opportunity of preferential voting which they have refused to consider for the wider membership.

Had the NEC acted consistently with its past practice, the nomination decision being a tied vote on the first round of voting, my view – as a long serving former NEC member – is that no NEC nomination would have been made (as I cannot believe the President would have used a casting vote to give a nomination).

Whether or not the process leading to this highly questionable NEC nomination leads to complaints to the Returning Officer (or, subsequently, to the Certification Officer) – UNISON members and activists who become aware of the goings on at today's NEC meeting will look askance at this decision of their NEC, whose nomination - even if it is allowed to stand - will carry far less weight than it has in previous elections.

Dodgy goings on at the UNISON NEC?

A couple of months ago, from my comfortable position here on the sidelines of life in UNISON, I blogged about the fact that the National Executive Council (NEC) had the power to choose to use the Single Transferable Vote system in the (then forthcoming) election for General Secretary. I suggested that might be a good idea.


I had made the same argument during my fourteen year tenure on the UNISON NEC (more than once). I found not only that my arguments in that forum fell on stony ground, but that the Standing Orders Committee wouldn't allow the issue to be debated at Conference in 2016 (although it had not tried to prevent this some years before).


There are arguments both for and against a preferential voting system in a trade union election (as there are in relation to elections to the constituency section of the Labour Party NEC) – what disappointed me most over many years of activity on the UNISON NEC was the lack of enthusiasm for a debate about these arguments.


Whilst there have been a number of changes in the procedures for General Secretary elections over the years (some of which I have commented upon recently) one thing which has remained the same is the voting system, set out in paragraph 53 of the current procedure; "The method of electing the general secretary will be by a simple majority of those voting in the election."


This is the established voting system which has been used in every previous UNISON General Secretary election, and whilst I have long been a lonely voice advocating that we ought at least to consider changing the voting system, I certainly wouldn't expect a change to be made without notice or debate.


Equally well-established has been the method of determining the nominee of the National Executive Council in past General Secretary elections. NEC members have been invited to make nominations and then there has been a single round of voting to determine the winner.


I reported the detail of that voting five years ago as follows;


"Paul Gilroy from the Northern Region nominated John Burgess, Hugo Pierre nominated Roger Bannister, Debbie Potter nominated Dave Prentis, Tomasa Bullen nominated Hayley Garner. The voting was as follows;

Roger Bannister – 4

John Burgess – 16

Hayley Garner – 1

Dave Prentis – 32

Abstentions – 1"


Five years before that, I had reported the vote here as follows;


"The NEC meeting commenced with consideration of the General Secretary election. Vice-President Angela Lynes proposed that we nominate Dave Prentis, local government NEC member Glenn Kelly proposed that we nominate Roger Bannister and South East Region NEC member Mike Tucker proposed we nominate Paul Holmes. There were 38 votes for Dave, 5 (myself included) for Paul Holmes and 4 for Roger Bannister."


As you will see, in respect of the last two elections – as reported on this blog – the simple majority of those voting for the candidate who secured the NEC nomination in 2005 and 2010 was also an absolute majority. There was not, however, any question of the ballot being an exhaustive ballot, or any suggestion that – had no candidate received an absolute majority on the first ballot – that there would have been a further round of voting.


Indeed, since the NEC has resolutely refused even to open a discussion about UNISON members being allowed a preferential vote for General Secretary (as Labour Party members have for Party Leader) an informed observer would not imagine that the NEC would think that its own members should use a different system to decide their own nomination.


And yet.


And yet.


Word reaches your humble blogger that today's decision about the NEC nomination in the current General Executive election was decided in an exhaustive ballot, following a proposal made (and agreed by a majority) without prior notice.


I will blog again with more detail of the voting at the meeting soon (and would point out to current NEC members that, of all the many things I was threatened about, and subject to investigation over, during my years of UNISON activism, no one ever criticised me for publishing the detailed voting figures from the decisions on the NEC nominations in the 2015 and 2010 General Secretary elections which I have quoted above).


What I want to say now is that it is truly, truly remarkable that an NEC that refuses to permit a discussion about a change to preferential voting for UNISON's membership to elect its General Secretary should be prepared to abandon its own long-established practice for deciding its nomination in a General Secretary election at a moment's notice.


You might call it inconsistency.


You might call it hypocrisy.


Whatever you call it, this unprecedented development casts a cloud over the NEC's decision-making process and raises a question about the legitimacy of its nomination.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - a three horse race?

With a fortnight to go until the close of the nominating period in the UNISON General Secretary election three candidates have already secured enough nominations to be on the ballot papers which will be issued to members at the end of October. For those who want to gauge how candidates have performed at the nomination stage compared to previous elections, here are the figures for branch nominations in the past two elections; 


Branch Nominations 2015

Branch Nominations 2010

Dave Prentis



Heather Wakefield



John Burgess



Paul Holmes



Roger Bannister




Prediction is a risky business – and the total number of branch nominations this year is least predictable of all perhaps – but I would hazard a guess that it is now quite possible that, whilst none of the candidates are likely to secure the numbers of branch nominations previously won by the incumbent General Secretary all three of them may end up doing at least as well as any other previous candidate.


Christina McAnea’s campaign claim over 100 branch nominations as well as the nominations of the Health Service Group and three Regions (Northern Ireland, Northern and East Midlands). Paul Holmes is well beyond the 25 branch nominations required to make the ballot paper and is probably now much nearer 50, having also been nominated by the Local Government Service Group (the largest service group in the Union). Roger McKenzie’s campaign is also well past 25 branches now. Whilst Christina’s support from most of what’s left of “team Dave” might be thought to make her the front runner, the energy and enthusiasm seems greater elsewhere. Paul’s campaign is running a series of online meetings targeting groups of Regions and Service Groups, and Roger is inviting contributions from members to provide the detail of a “crowdsourced” manifesto.


A fourth campaign is still being pursued – Hugo Pierre is still seeking nominations even though he did not secure the support he sought from other comrades on the left in the Union.


Hugo is claiming just thirteen branch nominations thus far. This puts him half way to the twenty-five branch nominations required to make it on to the ballot paper. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he will make it, but his supporters are clearly getting a bit desperate – as my old friend Glenn Kelly has taken to the pages of “the Socialist” not just to report upon the election campaign but also to attack the candidacy of Paul Holmes, on the grounds that he is currently suspended by his employer and by UNISON because (Glenn claims) of allegations of bullying and harassment.


This really is quite a scandalous attack from one socialist upon another. There is nothing new in UNISON activists facing allegations of bullying from the employer – and (in some cases at least) being supported by UNISON to respond to such allegations. Glenn himself knows what it is like to face unjust treatment from an employer – and, as Bill Mullins put it twenty years ago, “Socialist Party members pride themselves on coming to the aid of any worker being victimised by the bosses.” Except this time to the aid of Paul Holmes perhaps?


As to the suggestion in Glenn’s report that Paul is currently “being suspended by… …the union for allegations of bullying and harassment” it is not just that this is untrue – it is that Glenn, being knowledgeable about the UNISON Rule Book in general and Rule C.7.4 in particular, will know that it cannot be true. It is quite remarkable – and utterly disgraceful - that the Socialist Party should resort to deliberate untruths in order to try to undermine what is the campaign of the first rank and file candidate to secure the nomination of a National Service Group in order to bolster the struggling campaign of their own candidate.


Hugo does however also now have the endorsement of the National Black Members’ Committee (NBMC). The national committees of UNISON self-organised groups do not have nominating rights in the General Secretary election (and therefore do not benefit from the exemption from the general rule against the use of UNISON resources for campaign activity which permits nominating bodies to explain their nominations to the members they represent), but Hugo’s supporters will nevertheless be justifiably pleased with this development. The NBMC decision will seem all the more remarkable to those who remember the whole history of what has come to be known as the “Defend the Four” story.


Informed observers, who might otherwise be taken aback by the news that the NBMC has endorsed a candidate who is a member of the Socialist Party, will, however, notice that the national officer servicing the Committee was – albeit briefly – a prospective candidate in the General Secretary election. Now that she is no longer a candidate, there being only two Black candidates still in the running – including the most senior Black official in UNISON – Hugo’s supporters won’t have been the only campaign team toasting the NBMC decision. Others may well have been just as pleased.


It may be that the real significance of Hugo Pierre’s candidacy is the damage that it could do to other candidates in what looks (for the moment) very much like a three horse race.


That said, Hugo is procedurally and constitutionally entitled to continue to seek nominations and his supporters are quite within their rights to promote his candidacy – this needs to be an election fought on the basis of mutual respect, and I am confident that the Holmes campaign will not respond in kind to the disgraceful attacks from Glenn Kelly in the Socialist, any more than supporters of Roger McKenzie will respond in kind to the attacks upon his supporters on the National Executive Council (NEC) which he has been right to call out in the run up to the NEC meeting which will agree its nomination.


Let’s hope for no egregious misbehaviour in this General Secretary election!

Friday, September 04, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - who is responsible for ensuring fair play?

All bloggers are, to some extent, self-obsessed, and I do tend to refer to the decision of the Assistant Certification Officer issued in 2017 from time to time (which is immodest as it does refer to me a fair bit). The decision had, at the time, something for everyone. UNISON trumpeted the fact that there was no order to rerun the General Secretary election, whereas the claimants (myself included) focused on the findings of proven wrongdoing. (For the avoidance of doubt – none of that wrongdoing was on the part of the current General Secretary, by my apology to whom (context to which is provided by paragraph 223 of the decision) I stand).

One of the orders, a request for which from some of the claimants was withdrawn during the hearing, and which was not therefore made, was for a ban on UNISON staff campaigning in future elections. The Assistant Certification Officer (ACO) noted that her consequent refusal to make such an order meant that it was for UNISON to decide what the role of staff should be in future elections (see paragraph 8 of her decision). In paragraph 311 the ACO recommended that the Union have a “thorough internal discussion and debate” on this point and then draft “clear, unambiguous and uniformly understood rules” as a result of that debate.


Although there has never (yet) been a transparent and inclusive debate within the trade union about recommendations of the Assistant Certification Officer, there were changes reflected in the 2020 General Secretary election procedures when compared with previous versions, paragraph 6 of Appendix 1.B of which now states that “given the nature of all of the roles in the Member Liaison Unit, the Assistant General Secretary Regions and Governance, the Director of the Executive Office the Director of Legal Services and National Manager for Regions and Governance, whose duties include functions relating to this election, these staff members will be excluded from campaigning in the elections on behalf of a particular candidate or candidates in or out of working hours.” The listing of these roles, holders of which may not campaign – even in their own time – is a novelty in this General Secretary election compared to previous such elections.


The fact that the posts listed in this paragraph include the post previously held by the campaign organiser for the successful incumbent candidate in the last election is, for those few who will notice, a startling disavowal of past practice in UNISON and an admission, in retrospect, that the way things had been done in the past had been wrong (as described in paragraph 298 of the ACO decision, which includes the only reference in that decision to Mrs Merton).


Not – of course – that everything which had been done in the past had been wrong. At paragraph 55 of the ACO decision reference is made to the identity of the former Head of the Member Liaison Unit (MLU), who had, at that point, ten years’ experience in running UNISON elections. At paragraph 115, the ACO finds evidence of the former Head of MLU “applying the rules in an even-handed and fearless manner” unafraid to stand up to the campaign team of the incumbent General Secretary, even though it was led by a “powerful and influential” Assistant General Secretary. It was only when the then Head of MLU was on leave that, as the ACO found at paragraph 131, pressure from “Team Dave” and a more senior UNISON official persuaded Electoral Reform Services to issue “revised guidance” on the point at issue.


The “even-handed and fearless” former Head of the MLU has now moved on, leaving a high standard of integrity for her successor to live up to.


It is a matter of public record that the new Head of the MLU is the former Head of the Labour Party Governance and Legal Unit, a matter which has given rise to some controversy in recent months, following the leaking of an internal Labour Party report (full disclosure – the same individual has been reported as having said some quite rude things about a rally of Labour Party members in Brighton addressed by your humble blogger in 2016).


In the spirit of being helpful to all those with a role in relation to the UNISON General Secretary election, it’s worth pointing out that those who join our trade union from our political party need to be aware that they are in a somewhat different environment.


It’s not just that any misconduct in UNISON elections can readily be subject to external scrutiny, but there is compelling evidence that there are those within our trade union willing to blow the whistle on malpractice – and there are people to whom they can blow that whistle who can be relied upon to act.


Particularly after the shocking revelations of misconduct by the former Greater London Regional Secretary in the last General Secretary election, UNISON members are entitled to expect that this election will be conducted fairly and that – in particular – those holding the posts identified in paragraph 6 of Appendix 1.B of the election procedures will not allow their personal views to influence their professional conduct.


A lot of people are watching.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - Christina McAnea's manifesto

 UNISON General Secretary candidate, Christina McAnea has published a manifesto, as a service to regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris UNISON-obsessive) I thought I would have a look at some of what that manifesto has to say. 

First of all, in relation to “Resources for Branches and Regions”, Christina McAnea pledges that; “I will kickstart a modern organising strategy fit for the digital age.”


Let’s look in a bit more detail at what this means;


I will immediately develop an organising strategy that is fit for the modern world of work, with priorities agreed across all democratic structures of UNISON - not in years to come, but from day one.


This sentence offers a vacuous commitment with an internally inconsistent qualification. An “organising strategy fit for the modern world of work” means everything and nothing, and to promise that it will be developed both “from day one” and that it will also be “agreed across all democratic structures of UNISON” is to make promises which any informed observer of UNISON will know cannot both be kept at once.


Local organisers will be directed to branches to give immediate support and we will draw on the talents and experience of our activist base to deliver our future generation of local organisers.


This is the opposite of what UNISON branches need and require. Instead of devolving control over resources to elected lay officials at branch level, Christina McAnea is promising to “direct” (centrally employed) local organisers to (chosen?) branches (whilst more than hinting that the Union will recruit more such – centrally controlled - local organisers from amongst the already depleted ranks of our local activists.)


Members will be supported to lead on organising initiatives to grow and build on UNISON’s strengths. Resources will be directed where they are needed most to fight for our members and to stand up for working class people.


The first sentence says nothing specific – but it strongly implies that members (who will be “supported to lead”) will not themselves be leading (in our “member-led” Union). The second sentence begs the question of who will decide where resources are “most needed” (and will therefore “be directed”). It more than strongly suggests a perpetuation of the current culture of central control over resources.


Every branch will be resourced for sustainable organising by investing in training for branch stewards, officers and activists.


This is a non-sequitur. The resources which branches need in order to organise more effectively are the resources which they have been asking for. The problem of how to organise hundreds of members across dozens of employers who do not recognise UNISON cannot be resolved by the provision of any amount of training but requires a rapid and decisive devolution of resources to branches.


Every region will be resourced to campaign and organise to respond to devolved structures and administrations, regardless of who is in power. Regions will be resourced to sort out facility time for our activists.


The first sentence hints at devolution to Regions without in fact making any definite commitment. The second sentence is another non-sequitur, since facility time depends not upon any amount of resources in a Regional office but upon the strength and organisation of our Union in the workplace. The suggestion that Regions can “sort out” facility time perpetuates a debilitating culture of dependency of branches and lay activists upon the full-time machinery of the Union, which cannot take us forward.


This text is repeated in a series of bullet points, and summarised in three slogans (with accompanying graphics) as follows;


Local Organisers to lift the load on casework and support branches to build our union


Health and Safety reps in every workplace


Facility time sorted by regional staff


The first and third of these slogans are the antithesis of what an organising Union would do, perpetuating the culture of dependence upon the full-time machine without devolving control over resources to branch level, where it is needed and belongs. The second is quite simply fatuous – a worthy objective for which the manifesto offers no explanation of how it will be achieved.


On the next page, Christina McAnea promises; “I will ensure every member is supported by UNISON.”


Let’s see what detail supports this unwise – and undeliverable – pledge.


UNISON members have always been at the heart of everything I do, and as your General Secretary, you will always be my first priority. That’s why it’s so important to resource our branches and regions properly so local reps can support and represent every member.


The first sentence is merely pious. The second, in the light of what has already been said above, does not appear to offer a meaningful change to branch funding (which is what is needed) and – taken together – this paragraph speaks to a “service model” rather than an “organising model” of trade unionism (in which the Union exists to “do things for” members rather than to enable members to do things themselves).


Under my leadership, we will use your money carefully, responsibly, and transparently to ensure our services always deliver value for money.


This is a sentence to which the 'The Law of the Ridiculous Reverse' applies. This holds that "if the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place". (This isn’t the only examples of the application of the law to the manifesto but it is a particularly obvious one).


I will ensure that your union is ‘there for you’ whether it’s advice and support, local representation, to resolve health and safety concerns or to campaign for you during your retirement.


This is a near perfect statement of the aspiration of a Union that exists to service, rather than organise its members. There is no way that a General Secretary can possibly “ensure” these outcomes and to promise to do so perpetuates the wrongheaded view that the Union is here to solve our problems, rather than help us to organise ourselves.


As your General Secretary, I will establish a new National UNISON College, offering free and subsidised education and training opportunities for all members. This College will mean that belonging to our union helps members get on in life and is essential to secure our members‘ futures.


This, at least, is a genuine and verifiable promise (to recreate something which we used to have in NALGO as the NALGO Correspondence Institute). Having picked apart every sentence so far it is only fair to acknowledge that this is a proper promise for a manifesto (although there is no indication of how this promise would be resourced – and therefore kept).


The text on this page is again repeated as bullet points.


The next page highlights the following promise; “I will demand a new deal for public services and public sector workers.”


Since this is a promise to say, rather than to do, it isn’t worth looking in detail at all the supporting text, which is – in any case – summarised in a single paragraph;


I will stand with every member to demand a new deal that delivers dignity at work, sees pay and conditions that reflect your essential work and sustained long-term investment in all our public services.


This offers a worthy objective, but no strategy or programme to achieve that objective. A reader less kind than this blogger might wonder why the Assistant General Secretary “responsible for Bargaining, Negotiations and Equalities” who has “worked for UNISON members for over 25 years, negotiating better pay and conditions for you across all sectors” needs now to make such promise of a “new deal.”


The next page promises; “I will lead the fight for a universal Social Care Service.”


What this amounts to, in practice is the following;


As your General Secretary I will direct UNISON resources to ensure we achieve wider organising, support and representation in isolated workplaces in the care sector.


This is also a promise worthy of a manifesto, and this time with the beginning of a suggestion as to how it might be achieved, although most of the rest of the manifesto (which fails to support meaningful devolution of resources to branch level) fails to point in the same direction. UNISON’s General Secretary lacks the power to “direct resources” in the way that Christina McAnea hopes (and every occasion on which resources have been directed outside our lay structures has been disappointing – remember the Three Companies Project).


The final substantive page of the manifesto offers the following promise; “I will always fight and challenge discrimination, racism and injustice wherever it occurs.”


This page then makes a series of sincere and worthy policy commitments with specific commitments and pledges to back them up. Since any reader of this blog post will realise that I am not generally inclined to support Christina McAnea for UNISON General Secretary, you will realise that the absence of a further detailed critique of the section of her manifesto on “Dismantling Discrimination” indicates general support for what it has to say.


Overall, the manifesto is a mixed bag. It is strong on support for equality. It has strong aspirations to defend the interests of our members, but these are not supported by clarity as to how those aspirations might be achieved.


In relation to organising our members, the vital task of our Union, the manifesto reveals a great weakness, seeming to be informed by a model of trade unions as service organisations “doing for” our members with centrally controlled resources, rather than – what we need – a Union that devolves its resources to the level at which members can organise for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - Local Government Service Group Executive rewrites the received wisdom...

 Today’s news that the UNISON Local Government Service Group Executive (SGE) has nominated Paul Holmes as candidate for General Secretary is justly being trumpeted by Paul’s campaign. This is the first time that a Service Group Executive has nominated a rank and file candidate for UNISON General Secretary.


This isn’t just any SGE – it is one which represents about half of UNISON’s membership. Its nomination does not dictate the vote of any member, or the nomination of any local government branch, but it certainly identifies Paul Holmes as a serious challenger.


It is not, of course, a complete novelty for the Local Government SGE to break ranks with the UNISON establishment. Five years ago, the Local Government SGE was the one SGE to nominate Heather Wakefield, when all six of the others nominated Dave Prentis.


Heather was, however, Head of Local Government and, as much as “Team Dave” deplored her nomination from the Local Government SGE they had expected it. Paul’s nomination by that SGE is a horse of a different colour. It begins to challenge the received wisdom – expressed here only recently – that a rank and file candidate may face insurmountable obstacles in this election.


It is probably worth looking at the nominations from the last General Secretary election, compared to the votes cast, as the nominations begin to come in this time, in order to gain some perspective;




Votes (%)






























There is no necessary relationship between the number of nominations and the number of votes and, although the candidate with the most nominations has always previously been the winning candidate, that candidate has either been the incumbent (Prentis in 2005, 2010 and 2015) or the sole “official” candidate and heir presumptive (Bickerstaffe in 1995 and Prentis in 2000).


If this election shapes up to be between two Assistant General Secretaries and one rank and file candidate, and a rank and file candidate who has been nominated by the Service Group Executive representing our largest Service Group, then it may be this whole election which is a horse of a different colour.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Disqualification of candidate leads to threat of litigation in union election - what does this mean for UNISON?

 It is, of course, the Royal College of Nursing that has paused its election for President (having disqualified candidates for allegedly misusing official resources in their campaigns) – and which faces a threat of litigation (if a slightly confused one) as a result.

It was the misuse of Union resources which prompted some of us to complain to the Certification Officer following the last General Secretary election. UNISON is hardly alone in having had a General Secretary election lead to litigation in the recent past.


Whereas the RCN is a very different organisation from UNISON, the other larger TUC affiliates have greater similarities. The cases that have been brought against each of the other two of the “big three” in connection with recent General Secretary elections illuminate the different cultures of each union and, in some ways, the strategic options for the future of UNISON.


The GMB is heading for a General Secretary election, its recently re-elected General Secretary, Tim Roache, having resigned for health reasons during lockdown (the GMB having received an anonymous letter making allegations about his conduct). Roach had first been elected five years ago in an election marked by an appallingly low turnout and the Union’s unlawful interference in the embryonic campaign of the only rank and file contender, Keith Henderson.


Anyone who wants to understand why a rank and file candidate is unlikely to emerge in the coming GMB General Secretary election could do worse than read the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Henderson -v- GMB. In GMB the culture of the Union is such that rank and file members cannot even communicate with each other between branches to begin to organise a rank and file organisation, let alone use such an organisation to mount a challenge for leadership.


In UNITE, where General Secretary, Len McCluskey is to stand down early (at some, unspecified, point before 2022), that Union’s culture is such that the United Left’s decision to endorse Steve Turner as its candidate (in an election that has yet to be called) and the decision of his defeated rival for the United Left nomination, Howard Beckett, to stand for General Secretary anyway makes headlines.


The importance of the United Left in UNITE is underlined by the outcome of litigation arising out of the last election (won by McCluskey with 46% of the vote). Defeated right-wing challenger Gerard Coyne, brought a failed challenge to the Certification Officer, complaining inter alia that Len McCluskey’s campaign had been given improper access to UNITE membership information – the Assistant Certification Officer concluded that this information had come from the (separate) database of the United Left (described as “a substantial group of Unite members who shared philosophical and political views about the policies and direction of Unite”).


The United Left is organised in such a way (according to the Certification Officer decision) that “employees of Unite may be members of United Left; but its officers are lay activists within the union.”  However, the candidates backed by the United Left in UNITE for the position of General Secretary have, thus far, been paid officials rather than rank and file activists.


UNISON has, in the past, had its own version of the United Left, except that it hasn’t been on the left, it hasn’t operated openly and it hasn’t been led by lay activists (so not really a United “Left” at all – but quite as influential as the United Left in UNITE).


This entity emerged into daylight, in previous General Secretary elections as “Team Dave” but otherwise you had to be a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) to notice that – from time to time – the majority of the NEC would be off to a pre-meeting (to none of which I was ever invited) at which they would ensure that the lay NEC served its ultimate function of delivering the wishes of the full-time leadership of the Union.


For most of my time on the NEC – aside from at General Secretary elections – the dominant faction in the Union had no name or public identity. In the run up to the 2017 NEC elections, in which – following the 2015 General Secretary election – they were concerned at the growing electoral strength of the emerging UNISON Action Broad Left, they declared themselves to be “Stronger UNISON”.


When, having fought for the first time in the open (as it were) the dominant faction found that they had their worst results in UNISON history they changed tack and instead proposed changes to UNISON electoral procedures to try to prevent effective (open) factional organisation – so that in last year’s NEC elections no one (formally) stood other than as an individual.


Those currently calling the shots in UNISON want to ensure that our Union never becomes one in which an effective organisation of the left (like the United Left, or Left Unity in PCS) can take the Union in a radical direction. They probably don’t want to go as far as the GMB in preventing rank and file organisation – and UNISON’s structures would never permit this in any case – but they might wish they could.


Battles for the soul of UNISON for as long as the Union has been in existence (indeed before that, in the negotiations which led to the “Final Report” before the vote on merger)– the decision at the first National Delegate Conference that we were a “member-led” Union; the compromise reflected in the first Democracy in UNISON guidelines in 1998; the struggle over the Union’s Disciplinary Rules around the turn of the century; the witch hunt of socialist activists beginning at the TUC in 2006. These are just some of the episodes in this ongoing struggle.


In the current General Secretary election it is clear that Christina McAnea is the candidate supported by those whose recent attempt to “ban factions” is the latest move by those who argued for a “member-centred” (rather than “member-led”) Union in 1994. It is equally clear that Paul Holmes stands firmly in the tradition of those who fought against the witch hunt from 2006 onwards (indeed he stood there himself at the time).


The candidate who needs, perhaps, to make it clearer where he stands on this question (which he can now do as a candidate in a way in which he could not do in many years as a senior official under the current General Secretary) is Roger McKenzie – or perhaps he will decide not to…?