Saturday, August 01, 2015

The implications of UNISON's support for Jeremy Corbyn for the General Secretary election

Socialist comrades have expressed as much shock as pleasure at the news that UNISON gave our supporting nomination in the Labour leadership contest to Jeremy Corbyn. (Even though some reported this without comment...)

I really should have believed the well placed source who assured me of the likelihood of this outcome and – with the benefit of hindsight – it can be seen that the rushed last minute consultation with members who contribute to the Affiliated Political Fund (APF) was a device to justify the unavoidable decision both externally and internally (for whilst our General Secretary has always demonstrated a commendably deft dexterity in arriving at a pragmatic position some of his supporters will have had to practice unprecedented gymnastics to arrive at a position where they are comfortable supporting an unashamed candidate of the left).

How did this position become unavoidable? The whole of the answer is the growing groundswell of rank and file support for Corbyn’s campaign. In part this was channelled by activists within UNISON (and this was not unimportant), but such is the political earthquake unleashed by Jeremy Corbyn that our General Secretary, and those around him, concluded a little while ago that his personal support for Corbyn, as expressed on Channel 4 News, was a prerequisite for his re-election.

The most credible rank and file candidates likely to oppose Dave Prentis (in the sense that he is the candidate with by far the best electoral record) is UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) (and Socialist Party) member Roger Bannister. Roger has come second to Dave Prentis in three previous General Secretary elections, on each occasion pushing another “left” candidate into third place (your humble blogger having been one such bronze medallist). Roger presumably believes that the anti-Labour position which clarified his differences with the UNISON machine in the New Labour epoch will provide a similar electoral advantage in 2015, but (after the Corbyn phenomenon) this seems very unlikely.

As thousands of workers flock to join Labour in order to vote for a socialist candidate to lead the Party, the Socialist Party view that the Labour Party is simply another “bourgeois party” (like the Tories) looks increasingly absurd – and it will hardly help Roger as a candidate for UNISON General Secretary that he will be able to boast of his abstention from the Corbyn campaign.

Something similar could be said (albeit with less force) for the other potential rank and file challenger, UNISON NEC (and Socialist Workers Party) member Karen Reissmann. Karen is less hostile to the Labour Party than Roger, but her organisation exists in order to try (and fail) to replace the Labour Party – and she is denial about the damage that will be done to her candidacy by her personal role in the grotesque mismanagement of rape allegations by her political organisation, the fall out from which has left “UNISON United Left” boasting a website which, in August 2015 has not been updated since last November.

It is likely that our General Secretary, and his supporters, were in a position to foresee the fourth declared candidacy (so far) in the coming election – that of Heather Wakefield, UNISON national officer. Whilst Heather will doubtless stand “to the left” of the incumbent General Secretary her appeal on the rank and file left is seriously mitigated (to put it gently) by her central role in delivering an unsatisfactory compromise over the Local Government Pension Scheme in 2012 and in failing to deliver a worthwhile local government pay campaign in 2014.

Had Heather been able to differentiate herself from Dave Prentis by her support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign this might have been a significant vote winner for her. She cannot. She will still win support from those who want to see a woman General Secretary, and has a base of support in the official UNISON structures, but will struggle to present herself as a “left” alternative to the status quo. She may have missed her moment.

Without doubt, UNISON’s support – and that of our General Secretary – for Jeremy Corbyn are factors which make the re-election of the incumbent in our own election more likely (an outcome which will postpone the necessary debate about UNISON's future).

This blog retains a position of “armed neutrality” on the General Secretary election, since what our Union needs is plainly both change from the inadequate approach of the past five years (as personified by both Prentis and Wakefield) and a candidate who can capture and express the energy and enthusiasm of the Corbyn campaign (as neither Bannister nor Reissmann can). For now, I respect and admire (in different ways) all four declared candidates – and will endeavour to offend all of them without fear or favour.

I shall hope for a fifth candidate.

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