Monday, June 22, 2009

What do we do about the far right in our own ranks?

A brief addition to my belated reporting from UNISON Conference.

Conference failed to pass with a sufficient majority a couple of Rule Amendments which were attempts to make it easier to discipline members of far right political organisations (of which the British National Party (BNP) is the most obvious example at present) purely for their membership.

Our rules at present permit disciplinary action against - and indeed expulsion of - those who engage in far right political activities. However, following the recent ASLEF case in Europe, the Government legislated (albeit in a very confused way) to address the right of trade unions to expel members of anti-trade union far right political parties and the NEC brought Rule Amendments to Conference to try to fit our Rules to the new legislative provisions.

Opponents of these amendments on the floor of Conference did not oppose action being taken against BNP members in our ranks - quite the contrary they included some of the most staunch opponents of the far right in UNISON. The worries which were expressed were around the widely drawn Rule Amendments which could have been used against members of other political parties.

I regret that the NEC did not simply bring a Rule Amendment forward to proscribe membership of the BNP on the part of UNISON members. I had raised this possibility in prior discussions when the NEC Development and Organisation Committee had had a meeting with a lawyer present. It had not been suggested that this would have been unlawful, rather the counter argument was that far right organisations often change their names and that if we were simply to proscribe the BNP under one name it might emerge again under another.

I have to say that following the recent electoral progress made by the BNP vermin I doubt that they will be in a hurry to abandon this name - and if they did, well we have an Annual Conference and we can amend our Rules if we have a consensus to do so. I hope that a Rule Amendment along these more simple and straightforward lines will be before next year's Conference.

In the mean time however it is simply inexcusable for anyone to suggest that UNISON cannot already take disciplinary action against members of far right organisations in our ranks. If we have information that indicates that a UNISON member is a member of (for example) the BNP then this information provides "reasonable grounds" to believe that the member may have participated in the activities of that organisation.

Under Rule I.3 UNISON members may be expelled if they “give encouragement to, or participate in, the activities of any fascist organisation, faction or grouping whose policies or aims have expressed or implied promotion of white supremacy or racial hatred at their core.” Under Rule I.5.1 a disciplinary investigation may be commenced “where there appear to be reasonable grounds to think that a member might be guilty of a disciplinary offence.” Therefore disciplinary investigations can commence in any case in which there is evidence of BNP membership on the part of a UNISON member.

This is further supported by Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights who concludes an assessment of the current law (and the mess created by amendments introduced in the House of Lords) as follows;

"We are thus left with an extraordinary mess:

As a result of the Employment Relations Act 2004, trade unions may exclude or expel someone (i) wholly because of his or her BNP activities or (ii) mainly because of his or her BNP activities and partly because of his or her BNP membership, and in both cases the action will be lawful, even though the union has not satisīŦed the requirements of the Lords amendments in the Employment Act 2008;

On the other hand, under the new amendments trade unions will be able lawfully to exclude or expel someone (i) wholly because of his or her BNP membership or (ii) mainly because of his or her BNP membership and partly because of his or her BNP activities, but on these occasions only if the detailed substantive and procedural requirements are met and only if no exceptional hardship is caused thereby."

Next year we need to agree a simple Rule Amendment to prohibit members of the BNP from being members of UNISON.

Until then we can continue to pursue any members of UNISON who engage in activities associated with the BNP (or any other organisation which contravenes Rule I.3). I hope that we shall.

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