Friday, June 19, 2015
On unity and the left in UNISON in the run up to the General Secretary election
As much as delegates at UNISON Conferences may express disappointment at perceived shortcomings of the Union leadership, delegates on the left can be equally critical (if not despairing) of the "left" in the Union (and - in particular - for the difficulty we have in being united). There is a perception of an eternally squabbling "left".
However, there is - in fact - a mixed picture when it comes to the ability of those of us on "the left" to work and campaign together.
First, as reported before on this blog, we have - working together - elected more critical left voices on to our National Executive Council (NEC) than ever before. The NEC left caucus is now broad and diverse, as well as large - and there are more Labour supporters in its ranks than there are members of either the Socialist Party (SP) or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
The members of the SP and SWP are an integral part of our left caucus (and our NEC) and - whilst I pull no punches in making criticisms of comrades when (often) I disagree with them - I recognise respected trade unionists elected by our members. As to what we should make of the fact that we have had the best ever NEC election results at precisely the time when we have no "United Left" (other than the broad, transitory, electoral umbrella of "Reclaim the Union" - a slogan rather than an organisation) - I really don't know.
Perhaps if we were better organised, with a vibrant, democratic and authoritative unified rank and file organisation we would have done even better - but perhaps our attempts to build unity are invariably so toxic and dysfunctional that it is better to have more modest ambitions.
At any event, the NEC meetings show that we can work together across a range of organisations (and individuals outside of any organisation). The subsequent support of the NEC left caucus for the Vice-Presidential bid of Diana Leach ( which, whilst unsuccessful, saw - as reported in the last post on this blog - more support than that for any previous left challenger) reinforces the observation that we can, and do, work together across significant political divides.
We must continue this cooperation in trade union elections as we move towards next year's elections to our Service Group Executives. We must also demonstrate the same unity in our solidarity with UNISON members in struggle (in Barnet and Glasgow for example) and in the everyday debates which arise at branch, Regional and national level.
So, there is much more unity (and consequent positive work) on "the left" in UNISON than a cynic might suppose.
Then there is the General Secretary election.
Well, not yet there isn't.
But there will be (as it would be political suicide to try to manoeuvre away from an election even if that were lawful).
Whilst Dave Prentis almost announced, by the content of his Conference speech and associated conduct, that he would be seeking re-election, the Socialist Party did announce that Roger Bannister (Knowsley Branch Secretary and Socialist Party member) would seek nominations for General Secretary as he has in all four elections for UNISON General Secretary.
Roger says he's running unless he believes that there is a better (more electable) left candidate. He prays in aid that he has come second in each of the last three elections, knocking another left challenger into third place on each occasion.
Roger also emphasises that, in the last two elections he has bested opposition from a "United Left" candidate (one of whom was your humble blogger) in spite of the fact that, on each occasion, he had received far fewer nominations than the (ultimately) third placed candidate.
The helpful decision of the Socialist Party to publish the voting figures for the last three General Secretary elections on leaflets at this year's Conference reminded those with a different view that, whereas Roger had taken 71,000 votes in 2000, he received 41,000 in 2005 and 42,000 in 2010 (which hardly suggests that he is on a roll).
Karen Reissmann (a nurse from the North West and member of the Socialist Workers Party) has twice now received the largest number of votes at "hustings" meetings (at which on each occasion, Roger has ruled out his own participation as a "candidate" since that participation was conditional upon prior consent to back the successful "candidate") - on each occasion Karen has defeated Paul Holmes (for whom I have voted)(and on each occasion I have been part of the minority who have opposed taking a decision in circumstances in which it has been clear that Roger will stand come what may).
As much as the results of previous General Secretary elections cast doubt upon the notion that Roger could ever win an election, they do demonstrate that, just as incumbency is a great advantage in a trade union election, so name recognition (achieved by repeated candidacies) has considerable value.
Karen's supporters stress that there are changed circumstances, and that she is both a woman and a health worker.
It is, of course true that circumstances always change - but as they changed from 2000 to 2005 and from 2005 to 2010 what did not change was that Roger Bannister came second in UNISON General Secretary elections - and other left candidates came third.
It is also the case that Karen would not be the first female (or the first health worker) candidate for General Secretary. In 2000 Malkiat Bilku stood for election as a low paid black woman worker who had recently led a high profile long-running strike, and came third behind Dave Prentis (who won) and Roger Bannister (who didn't).
Karen - as a candidate - would be forced to address the questions which would be asked about her role, as a leading member of the SWP, in relation to the lamentable conduct of that organisation when confronted with allegations of rape by one of its leaders. Whilst many socialists have taken the difficult decision to continue to work alongside members of the SWP who seemingly continue to fail to see the seriousness of this issue because we recognise good trade union activists with whom we nevertheless have much common ground, the supporters of our current General Secretary would not exercise restraint - and the benefit of running a female candidate to lead a union with a million women members would, at the least, be severly mitigated by the vigorous opposition to that candidate from feminist voices within the Union.
The only thought less appealing than the choice between Roger and Karen is the thought that our current General Secretary will carry on.
UNISON needs to change. It needs to be rejuvenated and re-invigorated if we are to meet the Tory challenge. A General Secretary election can only help to meet this need if it replaces an incumbent (which is unlikely if the incumbent seeks re-election and impossible if an incumbent candidate faces a divided challenge).
Whether "the left" in UNISON can find its way to a united left challenger remains an open question (best answered by the delegate who said "I want a single left candidate, but then I've always wanted it to rain beer").
What activists in UNISON should reflect upon though, before berating "the left" for its current dis-unity in relation to the General Secretary election, is the effectiveness of joint work in the NEC elections, on the NEC and other national committees and - as, if not more, importantly - in building solidarity with UNISON members (and other workers) in struggle.
On a train home from Conference it seems to me most important to work out how to build practical unity around support for struggles and around vital trade union issues (such as branch funding). None of the General Secretary elections since UNISON was created have been occasions for building rank and file organisation or advancing the left within the Union. I therefore refuse to be downheartened by the obvious prospect that the next one won't be either.
Our priority must be to mobilise opposition to the Tories and to austerity, locally and nationally. All who can should support tomorrow's demonstrations in London and Glasgow. All who will should join the Labour Party, or register to vote as an affiliated member, in order to back Jeremy Corbyn. All of us must redouble our efforts in our branches to recruit, organise and politically educate both members and stewards.
There is much to do and, as a left member of the UNISON NEC, I shall do as much as I can, and know that my fellow members of the left caucus shall also (whatever differences we may have).
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.