Wednesday, October 12, 2016

We are the Champions?

Following on from the General Secretary’s report to today’s meeting of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) we received a report on the Union’s Public Service Champions campaign.
This is a campaign, arising from Motion 31 agreed at UNISON National Delegate Conference this June, to promote public services, and it is starting with a simple message about the value of public services, developed following work with focus groups, to establish a database of sympathisers which can then be used to mobilise public support when (as they surely will) this Government comes to take even bigger chunks out of our public services.
The explanation which we were given for the purpose and intent of the campaign allayed considerably the substantive concerns of at least this cynic – it is clear that the campaign is not intended as some sort of labour movement equivalent of “employee of the month” or some mechanism to reward Stakhanovite endeavour. This is simply the first phase of a campaign in defence of public services for which our Conference has called.
However, your humble blogger expressed, and stands by, concerns about the way in which UNISON has developed and agreed the detail of a campaign for which our Conference called in a very general way. The campaign was launched on 26 September, and reported (as a fait accompli) to the relevant Strategic Committee of the NEC (the Policy Committee) a week later.
Today’s NEC meeting received an enthusiastic, and substantively persuasive, verbal report about the purpose and intent of the campaign (including a supplementary report about the way in which the campaign had reached Mumsnet) – but not a written report, nor information on the budget for the campaign. Having a commitment to the accountability of the union to its lay structures which borders on a personality disorder, your awkward blogger made these points to my NEC colleagues.
I have the unfashionable view that we should be rigorous in holding to account those to whom we entrust responsibility for the resources of our trade union and that we should be diligent in scrutinising what they do with those resources. I am not happy to arrive at a meeting of the NEC of the biggest and most important trade union in the United Kingdom and to receive a purely verbal report about how we have launched a major campaign which will last for five years (even if it wisely excludes ice sculptures).
With a couple of exceptions, the responses to my expressions of concern gave me the sense of what it must be to be savaged by a small flock of dead sheep, as I was criticised for “whingeing” and corrected by Committee Chairs who sought to assure the meeting of lay governance and oversight of this important campaign.
I was in a position to weigh those assurances against a written statement provided to me as a member of the NEC.
I had asked, in a written question, when, prior to the launch of the campaign, the Policy Committee had agreed to its launch. The answer told me that the General Political Fund (GPF) Committee had considered launching fresh political communications campaigns in October 2015, that the Policy Committee keeps public service campaigning “under regular review” and that Motion 31 having been passed at June’s National Delegate Conference, the GPF Committee had backed up the motion with the “public services champions” campaign. No minutes of the GPF Committee were before today’s meeting.
So the (written) answer (not seen by the rest of the NEC) was that the Union’s Policy Committee had not taken the decision to launch this campaign, but were interested and admiring spectators after the fact of its launch, as indeed was our NEC today. Nor today were we offered the courtesy of a written report to record the pearls of wisdom shared verbally, nor any metrics or financial information. I think that the campaign has merit, but that the manner of its presentation to our lay decision making body today was shoddy (and hardly consistent with Rules B.2.2 and D.2.1)
Whilst some of my NEC colleagues seemed unable to grasp the distinction between a criticism of the procedural governance of a campaign and a criticism of the substance of the campaign itself, the single most risible response to my questioning was from the individual who suggested that I was criticising the Union’s professional staff working on the campaign.
I do appreciate that it is quite the fashion now to characterise critical comment in our trade union as both outrageous disloyalty at a time of crisis and also a scandalous affront to hardworking employees, but my criticism of the flawed decision making processes which has led UNISON to commit itself to a major and important campaign without an informed decision of its ruling body is not at all a criticism of staff – it is a criticism of the majority of the elected lay leadership of the Union.
We do, indeed, face the hardest of times as a rightward moving Tory Government prepares for the self-inflicted economic damage which will follow any Brexit by sharpening their axes to hack away at still more of our public services (and at the living standards of public servants). If we are to face this challenge we need an NEC which is up to the job of leading our Union in such times, and which is unafraid to hold to account any and all of those who work on our behalf.
Such an NEC would actually lead UNISON. I hope that it will be such an NEC that will see the “public service champions” campaign through the coming years.
Which observation will lead to another post on this blog very soon I am sure.


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