Friday, June 12, 2015
The decline of UNISON Conference?
Tomorrow I shall travel to my twenty fourth consecutive Annual Conference of my trade union.
This century UNISON Conference has become less unruly, less unpredictable, less vibrant - and therefore less worthwhile, less interesting and less effective in holding to account our leaders.
In this blog post I want to suggest some of the reasons for this lamentable state of affairs, and shall then go on (in a later post) to suggest something that lay democrats in UNISON might want to do about this.
One obvious underlying factor has been the relative absence of vibrancy in the wider class struggle. When there are fewer disputes in the wider world - and when (rare) national strike action enters the stage only ever for a single day to boost recruitment before a shabby compromise (or worse) is foisted upon the members through absence of leadership - there is less struggle to be reflected in the goldfish bowl of Conference.
However, I observe that it is more important that our leadership has learned, over two decades, how to manage our Conference. The prioritisation process whereby the order of business is constructed lends itself to bureaucratic manipulation and - in a Union in which visible dissent spells career death for officials and ostracism for activists - this process tends to promote woolly consensus and marginalise controversy. The persistent failure of the Union to publish an up to date Branch Directory inhibits "unoffical" organisation around the prioritisation process (just as the failure to restore lay access to the database of Conference decisions for several years now puts obstacles in the way of the drafting of motions for those outside the official machine).
Of course, the prioritisation process can only work its magic upon those motions which are admitted to the Agenda - and our Standing Orders Committee has moved, incrementally, over two decades, to find new reasons to rule motions out of order (with each new restriction setting a precedent for future years). For example, in 1994 Conference voted down a plan for a new Headquarters building - but in 2015 a motion about our under-utilised prestige project on the Euston Road has been ruled out of order on the grounds that it concerns the terms and conditions of staff (the interpretation of Rule D.2.10 that says conference cannot debate staffing issues was explicity disagreed with in the "blue pages" of guidance to SOC members in the late 90s). From 1995-1997 Conference debated the election of paid officials, but all attempts to have such debates this century have been ruled out. This evolution in the approach of SOC reflects not changes in Rule but a ratchet effect whereby each restrictive decision sets a precedent for the next.
Where - as for example in Rules debates - controversy cannot be avoided then the quality of debate has suffered as the floor management skills of the machine (not, I should point out, of the NEC) have matured just as those of the rank and file left have diminished. From 1998 to 2001 Conference debated amendments to UNISON's disciplinary rules.
These were contentious and difficult debates which led, in the end to an inconclusive (yet democratic) outcome. They were, however, for the most part, well run debates - and part of the reason for this was effective cooperation between rostrum control and the "floor organisers" on each side of the debate.
In what was not, then, an uncommon practice, rostrum control would take "speakers lists" from floor organisers (I know because I was one). Now this practice has been lost and each individual delegate must put their name down to speak in person (whilst this appears - on the face of it - more "open" and "transparent" but, since the NEC continue to have the ability to interpose platform speakers at will, the "derecognition" of unofficial floor organising has shifted the balance between the floor and the platform to the benefit of the platform).
On balance, I think that the procedural changes at and before Conference have been more significant than the low level of struggle beyond the Conference bubble in "taming" what was once a democratic "parliament" for our Union.
However, it would be wrong to excuse the rank and file left from culpability in this process (as if we were not also concious social actors in the development of our trade union). We have aged. Some of us have been co-opted (some of us have been expelled!) We have pursued other priorities. We have fought amongst ourselves.
Above all we have take our eye off the ball of using Conference to hold our leaders to account. The decline in the number of questions asked on the Annual Report cannot be because it has evolved from a meaningful document reporting upon the work of a trade union into something more akin to a company prospectus - that ought really to raise more, not fewer questions. Questions don't get asked because activists don't ask them.
I do not exclude myself from any of the criticisms above. Quite the contrary.
But if - as I believe - we are at least partly responsible for the stifling of democracy in our Union (leading to the stifling of yawns on the floor of Conference) then it follows that we must be able to do something about it.
Of which more later...
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