Friday, December 30, 2016

This is not the moment to try to make Brexit work for working people

This moment has been coming for a long time.
In the early twentieth century, British politics grew up from being a battle between “liberal” and “conservative” wings of the ruling class and became, by the mid-twentieth century about the conflict between representatives of the working class and of the ruling class.
After the working class had had to be armed to put back into its bottle the nazi djinn released by a bourgeoisie terrified by the October revolution, our Party formed our greatest ever Government which built a welfare state that underpinned a generation of progress for working people, leading to the pinnacle of support for our movement (in 1979).
However, the impossibility of reforming capitalism into a society which could sustainably be organised in the interests of the working class in the long term meant that the economic crisis created for the ruling class by the power of our side was resolved (in the absence of a socialist leadership of our class) – by Thatcherism – through our defeat and at our expense.
As we were defeated domestically so the (terribly flawed and often horrendous, yet real) global alternative to capitalism was destroyed by the failure of its bureaucrat leaders to foresee that they could never win a global arms race with rapacious global capitalism.
The “fall of the wall” began (or accelerated?) a process of decomposition of social democratic parties (in Europe at least) which has been perhaps most pronounced in Greece but has been universal. Much of the political left deluded ourselves from time to time that this was a positive development. Some still do.
Right wing social democracy sought salvation in the Blairite “Third Way” and an ultimately doomed marriage between social and economic liberalism, a dream that could only be sustained for a while – whilst the economy permitted the ruling class to afford it.
The economic crisis which made the “Third Way” unaffordable led to Conservative Government in the United Kingdom (as it has eclipsed social democracy through most of Europe) and the reaction to the revealed irrelevance of the flaccid careerists who had dominated the Blair/Brown Labour Party has led to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Your blogger welcomes Corbyn’s leadership as I welcomed his candidacy even before it had become fashionable to do so (and if I abstain from the national Momentum “organisation” created to give organisational form to a fan club it is only because I despise and despair of the careerists who flutter around it as flies surround a cow pat).
However, I understand and appreciate that just at the same time that a socialist has risen (for the first time) to lead the Labour Party, so the class struggle has been eclipsed as the organising principle of British politics because of defeats previously inflicted upon our movement. The tragedy of the 2015 General Election was not simply the first Tory majority in 23 years but that the decision to call a referendum on the EU would reorganise our national politics around an internal disagreement within the ruling class.
This has now happened. The key political question in the UK is not currently whether you are for the working class or the ruling class. It is whether you are for the xenophobes and isolationists or the “globalising” exploiters. (For the avoidance of doubt, your blogger takes the latter side as should all internationalists and socialists).
Obviously the task of socialists is to (re)build the working class movement (in part in the hope that we can develop our national polity in the direction of class politics once more). Any socialist outside the Labour Party is merely a political tourist now – and within the Labour Party we must of course support the socialist Leader of the Party.
However, we cannot possibly offer uncritical support to a leadership which is plainly unable to fathom the depths into which the national polity is sinking. To suggest that Labour can make “Brexit” work for working people is a lie that should not be told.
The sad but simple truth is that we cannot prevent the marginalisation of Labour whilst our politics is fundamentally defined by a dichotomy which is not class struggle (any more than the working class in the occupied six counties have been able to build a working class party under the shadow of a polity dominated by the national struggle).
This is most certainly not a failure of “Corbynism” (if such a thing exists) and the solution is not a triumph of the residual Blairite careerists who form the majority of the terminally unimpressive Parliamentary Labour Party (or of the elements of the trade union bureaucracy who support them).
However, neither the ragged remnants of right-wing social democracy flying the flag for “Progress” nor the rag, tag and bobtail upon whom the current Party leadership are forced to rely appear yet to have faced the reality of the change wrought upon our national polity and the consequences of that change.
This would be the point in such a blog post at which the reader might expect a (more or less) trite answer to the problems previously identified.
I am happy to disappoint.
I don’t know the answers to any of the problems posed above.
Neither do you.

We have some thinking to do.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The future role of UNISON employees in elections for General Secretary?

Continuing the theme of sharing with you, poor reader, the meanderings of my muddled mind arising from three days in the recent hearing before the Assistant Certification Officer (without touching upon the matters in the case itself) I have been asking myself about the proper relationship between a trade union and its employees.

This is a topic which has been the subject of debate in our movement for more than a century. I have frequently blogged on the topic of the trade union bureaucracy – although these days I fear this sort of discussion can end up in a Rule I investigation (!)

Clearly large trade unions need to employ staff to carry out various functions that it would be impractical for members to carry out for ourselves. It is to be hoped that many of those we employ will be committed to the principles of trade unionism and UNISON has inherited a tradition that employees of the union may remain, or become, members of the union which employs them.

In UNISON our Rule Book says that staff can be members of our trade union, at Rule C.2.9, but that they shall not be members “of any branch or of any Group or of any Region” (Rule C.2.9.2.2).

That is a rule which, to the casual observer, might be said to be honoured in the breach – since there is a “National Staff Branch” of UNISON which, even if it exists only for the convenience of administration of membership, does nevertheless exist in breach of UNISON Rules.

Rule C.2.9 precludes members who are employees from voting for membership of any lay body (such as the National Executive Council) whereas it explicitly provides (at Rule C.2.9.3) for a right to vote in a political fund ballot. Interestingly the rule is silent on whether members in accordance with Rule C.2.9 have the right to vote in elections for General Secretary, although the convention appears to be that they are given that right.

UNISON members reflecting upon what (little) we have achieved since 1993 need to be prepared to rethink our trade union from first principles and therefore, in the first place, we need to debate whether or not it is appropriate that staff employed by a democratic lay-led workers' organisation should themselves be members of that organisation.

On the assumption that the status quo expressed by Rule C.2.9 survives critical examination of its merits, we then need to think about whether or not the election of a General Secretary is, like the election of our National Executive Council, something from which those members who are UNISON employees should be excluded in future – or whether it is, like a political fund ballot, a part of our trade union democracy in which our employees should be included.

I incline towards the former point of view, but I certainly think that it is unacceptable that our Rule Book is silent on the question of whether or not staff, who are UNISON members, should have a vote in the election of their own boss.

Do we need a General Secretary?

Now that the hearing of evidence in front of the Assistant Certification Officer is over and the complainants and the Union are waiting for Wednesday 22 February when we shall reconvene to make our closing arguments in relation to the complaints concerning last year’s election for General Secretary it is time to begin thinking further about the future of our trade union.

I don’t intend to go into the evidence which was heard this week, or the arguments which will be put next year. The time for that will be once the Assistant Certification Officer has issued her decision.

However, there are questions which UNISON members need in any case to be thinking about, not least as elections to our National Executive Council come round and the deadline for submissions to next year’s National Delegate Conference looms.

One question which popped into my mind this week was whether we really need to have a General Secretary at all. Our Rule Book (Rule E.3) says that we must – but the law only says that if you have a general secretary they have to be elected by the membership (unless they hold office for less than thirteen months).

Branch-level elected positions in the trade union can be job-shared in accordance with Rule G.4.1.5 but our Rules say we must have one – and only one – General Secretary. This certainly entrenches hierarchy at the top of our organisation and I cannot see why it should be essential for a trade union governed by an elected lay Executive to have such a hierarchy of paid staff.

In principle there is no reason why we could not have a senior official responsible for (say) publicity, responsible to a lay communications committee, a senior official responsible for organising, responsible to a lay organising committee and so on. Unity and coordination could be provided by the elected lay National Executive Council (NEC), rather than by a secretariat of paid employees.

Certainly it is the existence of this secretariat which raises the question of how to design, improve and strengthen democratic checks and balances (which are at present seriously inadequate). In the early years of UNISON the Presidential Team (a phrase which does not in fact appear in the Rule Book) was developed by lay members of the National Executive in order to provide lay oversight and scrutiny of senior officials, but in my time on the NEC I have rarely noticed it performing this function.


Realistically I suppose it is this latter question (how to improve democratic safeguards and lay scrutiny) we need to think about, but in doing so, it is at least worth bearing in mind that we don’t necessarily have to have a General Secretary, and that if we are going to keep the role in future we should be certain that the position adds value and effectiveness to our organising.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

It's not over til it's over...

Three days of hearing evidence before the Assistant Certification Officer in central London are over - but we are now looking for dates in February for the parties to make their closing submissions.

It will be some time after that before we know the outcome. The hearing has, however, brought various matters into the public domain.

I may not restrain the urge to comment further.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The strange death of municipal England - the role of the trade unions?

Your blogger, as someone who was a student of local government even before I was an employee, can do no better than recommend this free essay in the London Review of Books on “the Strange Death of Municipal England”.
Seriously, go and read that now. Even if you don’t come back here.
Before starting work in local government thirty years ago, I knew that in successive struggles in the twentieth century socialists in English local government had fought to defend a model of autonomous, redistributive and adequately resourced municipal government.
In Poplar in the 1920s and Clay Cross in the 1970s, Labour Councillors defied unjust laws rather than abandon the interests of their working class electorate – and in the 1980s Thatcher fought the “enemy within” in local government with quite as much determination as she fought the trade unions.
The abolition of the Greater London Council and the (less lamented) Metropolitan County Councils in 1986 have arguably been more significant in the long term than ratecapping, although it is that struggle, particularly in Liverpool and Lambeth, which is better remembered - both by those of us who celebrate that defiance and by those who have built entire lives running away from it.
At the time what was significant about the defeat of the poll tax was the end of Thatcher – but a generation on we can also see that the replacement Council Tax has helped to facilitate the continuing decline of the autonomy and legitimacy of local government.
As the last Peace and Nuclear Affairs Officer of the (nuclear free zone) London Borough of Lambeth your blogger is an authentic relic of the 1980s “loony left” – and as the last Branch Secretary of the Lambeth Branch of the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) also a relic of a time when the organisations of the local government workforce defended local government.
Because alongside the tragedy of the death of municipal England is the role of the trade unions representing the local government workforce in providing little more than well informed commentary.
The largest collective bargaining unit in the economy is the local government workforce in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (since Scotland broke away). This enormous chunk of the trade unionised working class is organised largely in the three largest trade unions – who between themselves have half the membership of the TUC.
Yet neither our trade unions nor our trade union movement as a whole have prioritised the defence of local government over the past generation. This failure has reached its culmination in the period since 2010. During the Coalition Government, local Councils shed a fifth of their workforce, and the remaining four fifths lost a fifth of their real income.
So, perhaps if we want better to comprehend the “strange death of municipal England” we need also to consider the state of local government trade unionism.

Of which more later.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What will the Certification Officer hearing mean for the future of UNISON?

I have kept to the promise I made not to provide a running commentary on preparations for next week’s hearing in front of the (Assistant) Certification Officer of complaints made in connection with the election for UNISON General Secretary last year. Being in possession of some three thousand pages of documents and statements in a total (now) of ten large files, I shall of course have a fair bit more to say soon – and not all of it as a pantomime.
I have certainly learnt things from the preparation of this hearing which I would not have learnt had I relied upon being given straightforward answers to questions as a mere member of the ruling body of the trade union. Whatever the outcome of the hearing, we must and will ensure that UNISON members have the opportunity to become familiar with every detail of what went on in the course of the election, so that members can make our own judgement about  our own trade union.
What I see now is what I have known for years, with greater understanding as each of the thirteen years I have already served on the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON has passed – UNISON is a top-down, hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation directed by a small number of senior officials in conjunction with a few leading members of the Executive (though the role of the lay part of this partnership is strictly subaltern).
There are some on the left who might, historically, have said “so what?” to this observation and, whilst I am something of a troublesome ultra-democrat (with incipient anarcho-syndicalist tendencies), I could see the argument that we ought not to trouble ourselves too much if our trade union was less democratic than we might wish if it were delivering for our members.
However.
The history of the period since 2010 in particular is a history of UNISON “battening down the hatches” in order to try to ride out a storm which shows no sign of abating. In the service of this strategy we abandoned prematurely the fight to defend public service pensions in 2012 and subsequently failed time and again to smash the pay freeze which has driven down the living standards of those of our members whose jobs we have been able to defend.
Therefore, in order to protect the continued existence of our trade union as an institution, we have deliberately refrained from supporting assertively the interests of our members. Our members have responded to this strategy as one might expect, with declining participation and interest in our union, as it delivers less for them.
From within the organisation this truth cannot be acknowledged, as a culture in which criticism is seen as disloyalty has risen over the years. Each success is applauded. Each failure is ignored. Critics are condemned or humiliated.
The combination of undemocratic, “top down” bureaucratic control with ineffective performance in collective bargaining is toxic for the future of UNISON. Ultimately, the most energetic commitment to organising cannot keep such an organisation growing in such a cold climate.
Therefore we need change.
Members need the new UNISONAction Broad Left – and activists need to show discipline and humility to build the coalition which is emerging to change our trade union.
We need candidates in every seat in the forthcoming elections to our National Executive Council (NEC) who are committed to change – and we need one such candidate for each seat.
Now is not the time for timidity. Nor is it the time for ego.
I do not regret my decision to stand down from our NEC. I am allowed to have a life, and now that I have the opportunity of happiness I intend to take it.

I will miss the opportunity of being part of a larger left on the NEC, seriously trying to reverse the decline of UNISON – but I will miss it far less if the seat I currently occupy is filled by Sean Fox, Secretary of the Haringey branch and representative of London on the National Joint Council Committee, who has the experience and judgement to do the job we need to be done.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A UNISON Christmas Carol

A spectre is haunting a large building on the Euston Road.
Well, given the season, three spectres maybe. Each, in turn, is troubling the slumber of those who sleep there.
First, there is the ghost of elections past, a spectre who reminds the sleeping souls of where UNISON was before the 2010 General Election (when we had considerably more members than we have now – and had not failed to defend public service pensions nor failed to smash the pay freeze). Perhaps this spirit makes those who dream of it reflect upon who they once were and what they might have hoped to achieve?
Then there is the ghost of elections (recently) present – a jovial spirit inviting people to watch what people have been getting up to in the recent here and now – and remarking perhaps on other related current events. It may be that this ghost causes dreamers, on awakening to consider what they are doing now?
Finally however, there is the most frightening spectre, a silent and unspeaking shade – the ghost of elections yet to come.
Will the visits of these spirits be enough for the somnambulists of the Great White Elephant to change their ways?


Monday, December 05, 2016

Defending democracy outside the Supreme Court

The small crowd outside the Supreme Court this lunchtime included a small number of knuckle-dragging fascists, some adherents of the little-known school of thought which holds that Boris Johnson was sent to us by Christ (one of whom was dressed, inexplicably, as a leprechaun) and a range of other oddities (including a disgruntled former taxi driver from Crawley).

The only organised left-wing group was the Movement for Justice, who have correctly identified that "Brexit" is racist and should be opposed. For the first time in my life I held a placard from the MfJ - because they were the only people there defending the values of socialism and democracy.

Are the left content to allow the far right to hold the space outside the Supreme Court - or will other socialists be there later this week?