Saturday, June 24, 2017
Now that I am no longer a UNISON representative I think I should turn my talent for writing controversial blog posts which may upset people to the sphere of my Labour Party activity. As regular readers will know, everything I say here is only my own personal opinion and so what I say here I say as an individual Labour Party member and not as Chair of my Constituency Labour Party (CLP).
One of the pleasures of the recent General Election campaign was meeting my old history teacher (and centenarian) Len Goldman. Len, who has given a lifetime to the struggle for socialism, wrote recently to the Grauniad to express the view that; “In the ‘30s we built a united front against fascism. Today’s inheritors of the fascist mantle need to be fought in the same non-sectarian way. Away with party shibboleths, which often hide real intentions. The Labour MPs who helped the Tories by denigrating their democratically elected leader are a prime example. Labour should at least unite with the Greens and welcome others who are prepared to defend the victims of the Tory onslaught and build a fairer, more democratic society. Caroline Lucas is certainly nearer to the intentions of the originators of the Labour party than those MPs I have mentioned.”
Len’s views are clearly shared by many on the left, including many within the Labour Party both nationally and locally. Unfortunately, however, this has been translated into support for a so-called “progressive alliance” which appears to entail one party (or more than one party) standing down in favour of other “progressive” parties. The fact that protagonists of this approach appear to include the Liberal Democrats (late of Coalition fame) within the definition of “progressive” does more damage to an inherently flawed concept.
It is one thing to vote tactically for a Party you like less than your first choice in order to defeat an even worse enemy – but quite another to deny your supporters the chance to vote for their first choice because you want to dragoon them into such tactical voting whether they want it or not. Those who thought that Labour should have stood aside for the incumbent Green MP in Brighton Pavilion have to face the reality that, whilst she increased her vote, share and majority, Labour came second and held a vote from 15,000 local people (many of whom might not have voted Green had we accepted the argument to step aside).
As we face the possibility of an early General Election, it is worth looking at the relationship between the Green Party and Labour nationally as well as locally in order to consider what we should be doing to avoid unnecessary division between those who want to see Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. A Corbyn led Government will not only face every obstacle beforehand but also sabotage from the deep state, the media barons, the wealthy and their fifth column in our movement after the election. It is worth looking at every opportunity to unite those who will support such a Government both before and after its election.
The Green Party, outside Brighton Pavilion Constituency face an almost existential threat from the willingness of their former supporters to switch to Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn – in the General Election the party with the most lost deposits was the Greens, they only saved their deposit in 11 of the 466 constituencies they contested. Given that you only need 5% of the vote to save a deposit this indicates that the Greens have been marginalised nationally.
In the Isle of Wight, where Caroline Lucas had argued that Labour should step aside for the Greens they got 17.3% of the vote, more than 4,000 votes behind the second placed Labour candidate in a safe Tory seat. Nationally the Green vote fell by more than half. There were fewer Green Party voters in the 2017 General Election than there are Labour Party members (and that means individual members and takes no account of three million affiliated trade unionists).
There is no prospect whatsoever of the Greens winning any more Members of Parliament without a change in the electoral system unless Labour abandons its current socialist policies. The electoral base of the Greens, to the extent that it exists in a few localities was built largely at Labour’s expense in areas where radical voters saw an effective means to express dissatisfaction with New Labour’s obsessions with privatisation and imperialism. Now that Labour has a socialist Leader and a social democratic programme for Government that electoral base is melting like snow in spring.
Of course the situation within Brighton Pavilion is unique. Caroline Lucas is proven to be a popular local MP, twice re-elected with an increased majority and (whilst some of us in the Labour Party might think some of the Green’s electoral campaigning tactics mirror the worst of the Liberal Democrats) plainly impregnable in the immediate future on the basis of the current constituency boundaries. Many Labour supporters in Brighton Pavilion (mistakenly in the view of your blogger, but not in their view) believe that they can support Jeremy Corbyn by voting for Caroline Lucas (and not only because some of them may have believed the lie that there was a risk of a Tory MP in Pavilion).
In these circumstances, and taking account of the seismic change in both the Labour Party and national politics through which we are living, the answer to the question posed (and answered so unconvincingly) by protagonists of the “Progressive Alliance” is that the Green Party should affiliate to the Labour Party in the same way the Co-operative Party does. The Co-op Party has 38 MPs, all of whom also sit as Labour MPs. If the Green Party came to the same electoral agreement with Labour as the Co-op Party they would put themselves on a fast track to increasing their Parliamentary representation compared to their current strategy of electoral isolation whilst waving the mangy carrot of the “Progressive Alliance” at an uninterested Labour Party.
Perhaps if we had some system of proportional representation there would be room for more than one progressive political party, between which alliances might be formed, but in 2017 that is not an option. The ball is in the court of the Green Party and its lone MP, but if that ball is served to the Labour Party we should be prepared to return it in a very positive way.
Friday, June 23, 2017
Within the next hour I shall cease to hold my last UNISON position as I am replaced on our NEC by the excellent Sean Fox.
It's been a wonderful, exhilarating, irritating, exhausting and fascinating quarter century as a Branch Secretary and - for fourteen years - a member of the National Executive.
I am grateful to those who have supported me over the years - and equally grateful to those who have amused me with their opposition.
Thank you too dear readers for your attention.
I won't be going away from here and may pass comment on UNISON affairs from time to time - but no longer as a UNISON representative.
I was saddened to see an inarticulate rant in Friday's "London Calling" (the generally tedious and anodyne Regional news sheet at UNISON National Delegate Conference).
The rant, written by one of the stooges of those who brought our trade union into such disrepute by their misconduct in the General Secretary election, celebrates the "leave" vote to which Londoners were so firmly opposed.
More than that, the author (mentioned by the Assistant Certification Officer in her decision for a previous ill-informed rant) celebrates that "we" have taken back control of "our" borders and speaks of "our national interests".
The visceral hostility to migrant workers expressed by the sorry soul who has cobbled this nonsense together is offensive (and, being plainly racist, amounts to a breach by UNISON of our Rules) but, as significant is the anti-working class political illiteracy of someone who believes themselves part of a first person plural which owns borders and has a "national interest".
Those of us who understand the society in which we live know that borders are controlled in the interests of the ruling class and that there is no "national interest" which unites workers with those who exploit us.
I am only pleased to note that the author of this intemperate rubbish is someone who has been repeatedly rejected by our members when trying to get on our NEC.
His delusions of adequacy are not widely shared.
I cannot say that I have always enjoyed sitting on the top table at the past fourteen UNISON Conferences.
I haven't always agreed with what my NEC colleagues have got up to. Our trade union has not always been united.
However, I cannot imagine a better way to spend my final day on this platform than to listen to the socialist Leader of our Party explaining his plans for Government.
UNISON today is united in support for the Party Leadership and I cannot remember a better moment at any of the twenty six Conferences I have attended since 1992.
Normal cynicism will be resumed as soon as possible.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
In my fourteen years on the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) I think I have spoken from the platform on no more occasions than the four on which I spoke, from the floor, in the two days of my last Local Government Conference as a branch delegate.
My NEC colleagues, recognising that I am outclassed by so many of their number as a speaker, have kindly spared my blushes over the years by protecting me from too much public exposure.
This year however, I was asked to speak should Conference reach motion 56 (Retirement? What Retirement?). I appreciated the wit of asking an NEC member who was voluntarily standing down from the NEC and returning to work to speak on a motion with such a title.
However, the motion is too far down the remaining order of business (known as the “snake”) to be taken before tomorrow lunchtime – and now that we have seen the outcome of the process of reprioritisation of Friday afternoon’s business it is clear that the motion will not be taken and hence my last speech to UNISON will not be given.
Although Motion 56 repeated much that Conference had already discussed and so there is no loss to Conference business from its not being taken, it does mean that I will not be able to address Conference on one of the little discussed social problems which has been a, perhaps unintended, consequence of the removal of fixed retirement ages in recent years.
This has created space for a pernicious new form of elder abuse, in which older workers are denied the opportunity to retire and enjoy their pensions under pressure from (for example) partners or colleagues who cajole the older worker into continuing to work even where this is against the wishes and best interests of the worker concerned.
Since I will now be leaving my last UNISON position tomorrow, having successfully engaged in the sort of succession planning which it is the responsibility of all of us to attend to, it will be for others in our Union to consider whether, and if so to what extent, UNISON should address this problem in future.
I mentioned a little while ago this morning’s meeting of the National Executive Council (NEC) (the second to last such meeting in my fourteen years on this august body). Towards the end of the meeting we descended into pantomime as an NEC member spoke by means of asking questions which he clearly considered to be rhetorical, but then objected when I yelled out answers!
One such question was about collective responsibility of NEC members, a vexed question about which regular readers of this blog will have become quite bored over the years.
Sitting on this top table at the Brighton Conference Centre I recollect when, twenty years ago, my friend and former NEC colleague Roger Bannister led a minority of NEC members off the platform and then proceeded to speak, against the NEC majority, in support of a motion censuring the NEC over its conduct in relation to the Hillingdon hospital dispute.
So those of my NEC colleagues who believe that we have “always” had the approach to the collective responsibility of NEC members which we have now are quite wrong. It will be for the incoming NEC (and future NECs beyond that) to decide how to proceed in future.
(As you can tell by the fact that I am obviously sat on the top table writing irritating little blog posts with which many NEC members might disagree) I am inclined to a fairly liberal approach to collective responsibility within our Union.
It is a complete misconception to apply the principles that apply to collective trade union discipline in our relations with the wider world to our internal affairs. When we negotiate with employers or go into dispute with them it is essential that, having agreed our position, we act as one. This is a correct application of the principle of collective responsibility.
However, when we debate within our trade union then – until we have made our policy decision – we should allow the fullest freedom of expression. From my point of view, a Conference decision is not taken until it is taken and I have never accepted that, as an NEC member, I should hide my own opinion from the members I represent just because it differs from that of the majority of NEC members.
However, the majority of NEC members believe that, once the NEC has agreed its policy then all NEC members should support that policy in internal debates within our trade union. I disagree with that view because I don’t think that the relationship between the NEC and Conference floor should be the same as the relationship between the employer and the trade union – but I can just about follow the logic of the other point of view.
Within the NEC however, the incremental extension of the interpretation of collective responsibility has scaled heights of absurdity as it is now applied to the Committees to which NEC members are appointed. As a member of the Development and Organisation Committee of the NEC I have, for a number of years, been prohibited from speaking or voting at a full NEC meeting against a recommendation from that Committee.
You don’t need much grasp of maths to realise that such an approach to collective responsibility could easily lead to a majority vote of the whole NEC which reflected the views of a minority, rather than a majority of the members of the whole body. (If a Committee with 25 members votes by 13 votes to 12 for a policy which all 25 must then support and is subsequently passed by 34 votes to 33 at the full NEC then the policy of the NEC would reflect the views of 24 out of the 67 members).
I hope that my friends and comrades on the new NEC will manage to bring a little more reason to their future deliberations and will, at least, dispense with the nonsense of “collective responsibility of Committee members on the NEC”. It may take a while longer to get back to the grown-up position of recognising that our NEC is not a monolith.
I have just sat through my last ever Rules debate at UNISON National Delegate Conference. UNISON Conference has passed three non-controversial Rule amendments.
I have to say that we used to have rather more interesting Rules debates within our Conference (indeed we use to have more actual “debates” – in which there is a contest of ideas rather than a long line of people agreeing with each other).
What is it that has reduced our Conference from a forum for energetic debate to a gathering of people agreeing with each other over and over again?
The answer is that the practice of our Standing Orders Committee (SOC) has become incrementally more restrictive year by year, so that controversy is filtered out at the stage at which motions are admitted to the agenda (and where this first stage filter does not exclude controversy, the prioritisation process, which is susceptible to officer influence, plays a supplementary role.
For example, in this Conference Centre, twenty years ago, I moved a motion calling for the election of Regional Secretaries. The motion was defeated, but it permitted a debate about the nature of trade union democracy and the role of our senior officials (which some might think, in the light of recent events, continues to require consideration).
No such motion would be admitted to the agenda today (as SOC would argue that it could breach the contracts of staff and/or that staffing matters are not for Conference anyway). Similarly, whereas in 1995 our Conference had debated the election of the post of Deputy General Secretary in later years attempts to return to this debate were ruled out of order (on the grounds that such a move would have breached the contract of our then Deputy General Secretary).
Mindful of that argument, Lambeth branch waited for the post of Deputy General Secretary to fall vacant and tried again to propose that we consider electing to the position. We were advised that such a motion still could not be debated as it might bring the union into legal jeopardy as it would limit promotion opportunities for other existing staff. (Funnily enough when the NEC proposed to delete the post of Deputy General Secretary that did not threaten any such jeopardy and Conference went on to agree to its deletion).
Having witnessed two delegates today achieve an unprecedented “hat trick” of three times referring back SOC it seems to me as a seasoned observer of our Conference that delegates are dissatisfied with the current practice of our SOC, albeit in these cases this was with decisions taken about “consequences” of the passing of one motion for the fate of another. I observe that delegates feel that SOC are constraining their ability to act upon the mandates that they have received from their members in order to take decisions about motions which are on the Conference agenda.
Because our Conference cannot (under our current Rules) overturn a decision of the SOC (but can simply refer decisions back time and again) and because decisions of the SOC cannot be challenged to the Certification Officer, the only answer to the problem of the increasingly restrictive approach to admission of items to the Conference agenda (or of the general approach of SOC) is to address the composition of the SOC.
Twelve members of SOC are elected from the Regions, and UNISON activists in each Region need to consider how these elections take place and identify robust and strong minded democrats to elect to the SOC. There are also three members of the NEC sitting on the SOC – these could be removed by deleting Rule D.220.127.116.11 (and removing the word “and” from the end of Rule D.18.104.22.168).
Even when (not if) the majority of your NEC are critical thinkers elected from the left you would be well-advised to remove NEC members from your SOC as there is an unavoidable conflict of interest between being the Executive of the Union and also part of the body which oversees the conduct of the Conference to which that Executive is accountable.