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)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Term limits for branch officers

For the past sixteen years my trade union branch has held our Annual General Meeting in January, and usually quite early in January.

This means that the return to work after Xmas and New Year is never uneventful - and in particular there are always motions to consider.

This year some comrades have taken a leaf out of the book of the leadership of the Lewisham Hospital branch and are proposing "term limits" for branch officers.

Diligent readers of this blog (Sid and Doris  Rule-Book) may recollect past posts responding to the proposal advanced on several occasions by that branch to our Conference, that NEC members ought not to serve more than three terms.

I never took it personally that such proposals began to be made as I embarked upon a third term on our National Executive.

Now some branch comrades propose that no branch officer should serve more than three years (unless there is no other candidate). 

That this proposal appears superficially radical is a testament to the fact that it does have a (fairly ancient) left-wing pedigree.

The healthy mistrust of leaders in the trade union movement found its purest expression around a hundred years ago in syndicalism. The RMT Union retains a tradition of term limits for lay activists because of the syndicalist origins of the former National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).

Term limits have an older legacy in eighteenth century democratic discourse, leading to the two term limit on US Presidents. They may be an appropriate check to the potential for a Head of State to accumulate excessive power over time. Syndicalists applied this insight, rightly or wrongly, to early twentieth century trade unions.

Syndicalism never really made headway because of the contradiction between faith in trade unions and mistrust of trade unions which was always at its heart. Whatever criticisms one might make of the Communist (and subsequent Trotskyist) traditions which subsequently won the allegiance of the most radical of working class militants, they did at least have a more sophisticated understanding of the role of leadership in the workers movement.

Such sophistication is not shown by those who propose term limits for UNISON branch officers. Were we in a trade union in which all power was vested in lay activists then an argument might be had that term limits could provide a check upon that power.

It would be a very weak argument, since the check upon such power would better be provided by democratic challenge than administrative manoeuvre, but it would be an argument nonetheless.

In the reality in which (Rule B.2.2 notwithstanding) much real power is in the hands of paid officials (who face no term limits of course) the argument for term limits on lay UNISON office holders (whether at national or branch level) is really an argument for the relative empowerment of the full time machinery at the expense of the rank and file.

A healthy and vibrant trade union in a period of rising struggle would be likely to replace its elected leadership in large part as newly radicalised layers of activists came into action, displacing those whose past experience might make them more conservative. 

This would happen as a result of real responses to concrete circumstances, not as a result of the bureaucratic imposition of anti-democratic rules at a time of relatively low struggle. 

The decisive argument against term limits is always an elementary democratic argument. Members should have an unconstrained choice as to who to vote for.  The formulation which says that no one may serve more than a certain number of terms "unless there is no other candidate" in a movement and at a time when positions are often either unopposed or even left vacant is a recipie for random outcomes.

If a Tory stood against a long serving incumbent they would automatically be elected regardless of the views of the electorate.

Trade unions are a means to an end (the representation of working class interests) not an end in themselves. Likewise trade union democracy is a means to the end of more effective representation.

Among the things that are wrong with our movement are the shortage of elections and democratic choice. The solution is clearly not to limit the democratic choices of our members in the elections which we do have, whilst empowering those who never face election.

Speaking personally to my friends and comrades who are Lambeth Activists I would say that if you want to change a branch officer you should submit a nomination, and if you value elections you should perhaps not withdraw nominations once made.


Anonymous said...


It's perfectly reasonable to make an argument against term limits. But it is weak beyond belief to use "paid officials aren't elected" as as a straw man argument against this.

You are capable of making much better arguments that that.


Anonymous said...

" Whatever criticisms one might make of the Communist (and subsequent Trotskyist) traditions which subsequently won the allegiance of the most radical of working class militants, they did at least have a more sophisticated understanding of the role of leadership in the workers movement."
In what way did Leninism have a 'sophisticated' understanding of leadership. Trotsky himself well before 1917 presciently talked of the party replacing the class, the central committee the party & the leader the central committee. Despite the fact Trotsky was also an autocrat, if a tiny one following his exile.
The idea that democratic socialists have anything to learn from such people is absurd.
Dave Draycott