Thursday, June 22, 2017
SOC and the decline of UNISON Conference
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.