In the late 90s, debates over Rules became the occasion for "shadow boxing" in a controversy occasioned by widespread belief that there had been political misuse of the Union's disciplinary rules.
Controversy around the Union's Rule Book subsided once a (then newly elected) General Secretary (one D Prentis) took office and signalled a more tolerant approach.
However, since 2006 there have been a number of high profile cases in which many activists have perceived once more the political misuse of our disciplinary procedures against socialist activists critical of our leadership.
These cases - debate about which cannot take place at our National Executive Council or any of its Committees, never mind at our National Delegate Conference - have created a poisonous atmosphere in some quarters, where activists fear misuse of the disciplinary procedures (or inappropriate Regional supervision of branches). Rejection of the use of administrative means to resolve political differences goes way beyond the ranks of "the left" and has now reached a point at which there is a breakdown of trust between the platform and the floor at Conference.
It is for this reason, amongst others, that Conference rejected Rule Amendment 20, which would have introduced a new Schedule (F) governing branch finances. A majority of Conference delegates clearly did not trust the assurances given by the Chair of the Finance Committee that this rule change would not undermine branch autonomy. This was not a personal judgement about the Chair of Finance, but a political judgement about the likely future conduct of UNISON nationally, reasonably informed by evidence of past behaviour.
Similarly, the refusal of Conference to support an amendment to Rule I intended to ease the expulsion of fascists, on the basis of concerns that the Rule could be misused to attack socialists, was not so much a criticism of the precise Rule Amendment, as an expression of mistrust. It is easy to see why such mistrust exists on the basis of accurate understanding of the conduct of certain recent cases.
As I write we do not have the result of Card Vote 1, on Rule Amendment 11 from Bolton branch, which seeks to impose a two year limit on the sanction of being debarred from holding UNISON office. However, we do know that the NEC's "compromise" suggestion of a five year ban could not carry even a simple majority (let alone the two thirds required to amend a rule).
This result too reflected an anger, directed at the platform, over the perceived abuse of our disciplinary procedures to settle political scores.
For as long as the floor of Conference believes that the NEC cannot be relied upon to ensure fairness and impartiality in the application of UNISON's disciplinary rules, then our NEC will struggle to secure support even for Rule Amendments which may very well be in the best interests of our members.
On Tuesday, our General Secretary said that there were "no enemies in the hall" - it will be for the incoming NEC to consider how to give effect to this statement in practice. Can we redirect resources being wasted on avoidable litigation? Can we steer officials away from recommending disciplinary charges which are politically motivated? Can we call a halt to processes which have yet to reach their final conclusion in order to reconsider whether they are in the best interests of our members? Can we look into past cases in order to consider whether UNISON is responsible for injustices and - if so - how to remedy them?
In a world in which members of the Manchester branch, at the Peoples' History Museum, can host an exhibition full of praise for the Lambeth branch, surely anything is possible...
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