Saturday, January 17, 2015
One step forward, one step back
I was one of more than 120 UNISON activists present at a "Reclaim the Union" meeting this afternoon at the Manchester Mechanics Institute, birthplace of the TUC.
Activists were present from every British Region of the Union, about a third coming from the North West, a quarter from Greater London and a fifth from Yorkshire and Humberside.
The meeting, called by the left caucus of members of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) and ably chaired by our Convenor, Max Watson, demonstrated the thirst for an effective left challenge in the forthcoming NEC elections, and the possibility of building greater unity on the left.
We took a step forward (or - rather - completed a step we had already begun) by receiving reports from Regions and Service Groups as to the left candidates seeking nominations for the NEC. However much I may disagree with some of the politics of some of my comrades on the left (or they with me) it is essential that we challenge wherever we can those NEC members who seem content for our NEC to remain a "fan club" for national officials.
As one London Branch Secretary put it with characteristic passion, it's time to wrench our trade union free from the dead hand of the bureaucracy - and the aftermath of the catastrophe of the NJC pay dispute is certainly the time to do this.
A united approach to the forthcoming NEC elections, with capable candidates of the left standing wherever we can find them (and opposing each other nowhere) is the very least the 120 people in that room owe to the thousands who are looking for something better from UNISON.
Had the meeting finished half way through it would have been a useful and productive way to spend a couple of hours in Manchester (and also worth the travel time of the majority of those present who were from outside the North West).
Unfortunately, organising the left is - as an old friend once said of the Campaign Group of MPs - like herding cats. We therefore embarked upon an unnecessary, implausible and counter-productive process of "hustings" for a single "left" candidate in a General Secretary election which (whilst we know it is coming) has yet to be called. This then led to an outcome which no one will accept (who would not already have done so) and set back the necessary task of building unity.
The fault lies not so much with the organisers or the chair, but with the majority who voted (at the outset) to have a vote at an ad hoc meeting which had no democratic legitimacy or authority to take such a decision. Incidentally, whilst the NEC left caucus called the meeting, the decision to take that vote was purely and simply the decision of the 120 people in that room. It has no other authority, and members of the NEC left caucus are no more bound by this decision than any other UNISON member.
This regrettable process enabled us to rehearse every disagreement in the room whilst finishing with a vote which had no foundation and therefore no authority. As we approach a General Secretary election in which, for the first time, more than one paid official may put themselves forward (as the union "machine" has yet visibly to unite around a single heir apparent) it appears that the largest organised forces on the left in UNISON are united only in their determination to give comfort to that ramshackle bureaucracy - and cause activists to tear our hair - by doing all they can to ensure that there cannot be a single "left" candidate when the election takes place.
Three fellow NEC members put themselves forward in these hustings, all of whom making some claim to be the best standard bearer of the left. Roger Bannister made much of the proven fact of his track record as the least unsuccessful candidate of the left in the last four General Secretary elections. Paul Holmes rightly pointed to his impressive record in NEC elections and as an organiser and campaigner. Karen Reissman quite understandably pointed to her track record as an activist.
General Secretary elections are generally poisonous for the left in UNISON because, whereas episodes of struggle require only that each group who believe themselves to embody the future of the global proletariat should compete to be "best" at solidarity, and elections to the NEC (and other such bodies) permit for a certain amount of "horse-trading" (although few like to admit that for what it is), in a General Secretary election we can have only one champion.
I can see that if I were a member of an organisation which I believed to be the hope for the future of humanity that I would easily be persuaded that a member of that organisation was the obvious candidate of the left to be General Secretary. Whilst members of both the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) may genuflect at the idol of unity, I take this with pinches of salt large enough to grit every road in Greater Manchester. The SP has never backed an SWP candidate for General Secretary and the SWP only once backed Roger Bannister (and then only in a state of panic about the 1990s witch hunt).
As a former (and considerably unsuccessful) candidate for General Secretary I did my best to ask questions intended to challenge each candidate. I asked Roger if he thought his support for the risible "TUSC" project would damage him as a candidate, and he made a joke of it. I asked Karen how she would handle the attacks she will face for having chaired the session of a Conference of her discredited Party at which a victim of rape was denied a platform, and she ducked the question. I asked Paul why he should stand again, having come third last time, and he focused on the positive reasons for his candidacy.
I make no apology for blogging all of this in public. Nothing I write here will not already be known at the UNISON Centre, and all those who put themselves forward as leaders have to be prepared to face public scrutiny. If a socialist candidate was anywhere near having a realistic chance of winning UNISON's General Secretaryship they would face a tsunami of hostility which would make this blog post look like a love letter.
The Socialist Party comrades made a point of abstaining from voting, stating that the decision making process was premature (although the comrade who pointed out that they did not think they could win a vote made a point which was not invalid). Roger Bannister said that he would stand as a candidate unless he was convinced that there was a better left candidate who could get more votes. Whilst this came across as quite as arrogant as it is, the faux outrage of members of the Socialist Workers Party was equally deplorable.
The SWP members (having counted heads and come to a conclusion which pleased them more than the conclusion drawn by the SP comrades) pressed ahead with a demand for a vote, in the full and certain knowledge that - by so doing - they were ensuring that there could not easily be a united "left" campaign in the General Secretary election. (I appreciate that it may be unfair of me to attribute that "full and certain knowledge" to all the SWP members there present, since such knowledge would require a certain level of political understanding, which is not something generally encouraged in that organisation. The experienced comrades with whom I have worked for years knew what they were doing though.)
In the end a narrow majority of the random souls present at the meeting "endorsed" Karen Reissmann's claim to be candidate for General Secretary, with the next largest bloc abstaining and a few of us voting for Paul. I cast my vote for Paul with a heavy heart, as I felt the process flawed beyond redemption - but wanted also to express my own opinion.
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.
Whilst I think that the truth about the position of the SP is that it is more important to them that they should be the "leaders" of the left (in the sense of running the candidate who gets the most votes on the left) than that the left should win, I have to concede that they have empirical evidence in support of their contention that Roger Bannister is the best candidate of the left.
As for the SWP, I fear that (as much as they deny that anyone cares about the rotten corruption of their leadership's defence of sexual harassment) it may be more important to them that they stand a "comrade" with a "United Left" badge even that there should be a genuinely united candidate of the left. As the decomposition of this once significant political group proceeds apace there may well be internal pressures to show that "the Party" is still seen as the leadership of the rank and file (however far that may be from the truth). When such a foolish candidature is savaged on all sides over the oppressive and reactionary conduct of the SWP misleadership (which would be seized upon opportunistically by the right wing) Party loyalists would console themselves that the derisory performance of their candidate was the product of a right wing "witch hunt" rather than the casual misogyny of their bankrupt political organisation.
In these circumstances, I can hardly criticise my friend and comrade Paul Holmes for not retrieving his hat from the ring into which he has propelled it.
So there we have it. Our step backwards has been a large step, and I regret it is - after this afternoon - difficult to find any optimism about what we might do in an election for General Secretary from the ranks of those of us in what we sometimes (perhaps misleadingly) refer to as the "organised" left.
Nevertheless, there is still time to do something else. There was no need to take a decision today about the General Secretary election - and no one emerging from this afternoon's meeting with their critical faculties intact believes that any meaningful decision was taken.
We must remember that we also took one step forward, and focus on the NEC election in which there is some prospect of positive outcomes. It is just possible that none of us on the left have all the answers, that none of our General Secretary candidates are therefore "obvious" standard bearers, and that we should try to work together with some humility in the hope of finding a way forward.
I'll be at the back of the "humility" queue I suppose (but maybe fourth from the back).
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.