Thursday, September 10, 2015
One election ends. Another continues. How should it be conducted?
All we can do now that the ballot for the Labour leadership has closed is cross our fingers until Saturday and hope that Jeremy Corbyn can trump an amazing summer by taking the movement to transform Labour forward into a challenging autumn as our Leader.
UNISON members now find ourselves, however, well into the initial nomination period of an election for our General Secretary - with a larger electorate than that which Corbyn and his opponents have had to reach (and with rules which prevent the telephone canvassing which has been a feature of the Labour election).
What lessons can the five candidates for UNISON General Secretary draw from the Labour leadership campaign?
It has been suggested that one useful lesson would be to borrow Jeremy Corbyn's maxim and to focus positively upon the proposals of one's favoured candidate, rather than campaigning negatively with criticisms of other candidates.
This is an attractive proposition, but one which could badly undermine the very purpose of a trade union election featuring an incumbent candidate if applied with excessive rigour.
The benefit of electing, rather than appointing, any trade union official (including a General Secretary) is that the official can be held to account by the members whom they represent.
If an overly comradely approach to an incumbent candidate meant that awkward questions and potentially valid criticisms were to be avoided then this would vitiate the function of the election in ensuring accountability.
Such a "gentlemanly" election would fit well with the culture of UNISON officialdom, in which everything is always for the best in this best of all possible unions, and in which investigation of serious errors usually takes long enough that it can be found that no one (at least no one who is still around) is to blame for anything.
That's not to say that there isn't plenty of backbiting and "off the record" briefing against (or even on behalf of) those who fall from favour - but as a general rule reports to the NEC (for example) are welcomed fulsomely by a majority of lay representatives (who sometimes compete to praise the wisdom and perspicacity of the officials).
The (shrinking) majority of NEC members who prioritise support for over scrutiny of the Union machine seem in many cases genuinely unable to distinguish between criticism and disloyalty.
Against the backdrop of such a flawed organisational culture, for a General Secretary election to take place in a climate in which it was unacceptable to voice criticism of past errors would be to grant a free pass to an incumbent candidate who inevitably begins as favourite to win.
Clearly the candidates themselves, aspiring as they do to lead the whole of our vast Union, must and should conduct themselves in a comradely way towards their competitors, focusing positively upon their own plans and proposals.
As for those of us who are not candidates, our members are owed vigorous scrutiny of all candidates by informed activists. That scrutiny should be proportionate to the likelihood that each candidate will succeed in being elected (or re-elected) and candidates should welcome being tested by such scrutiny and challenge.
The pressure which candidates will face from the most vigorous challenge is, of course, as nothing compared to the constant fear of victimisation and dismissal faced daily by many of our activists in the front line of the defence of public services.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.