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. (and removing the word “and” from the end of Rule D.

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.


Anonymous said...

Whilst preventing controversial motions onto the agenda is the major problem, the prioritisation process, as you note also, affects what is actually debated.

It has the affect of promoting those motions where there is widespread support hence they are mostly carried without dissent. Whilst it is good that these issues are debated it crowds out motions where the would be more debate.

I have a simple solution for this. One of the conference sessions, say Friday morning should be devoted to motions drawn by ballot. This would mean that every motion submitted as a chance of being debated.

Pete Gillard said...

Absolutely right Jon.

As the Chair of Unite's SOC for its first three Policy Conferences, I frequently got requests from the General Secretary's Office to rule motions out of order. We invariably didn't. So Conference were able to debate issues like putting a clause in Officers' contracts preventing them from jumping ship and working for the employers they had been negotiating with. Our principle was if it wasn't specifically ruled out by the rule book, it was allowed. If there was a question of interpretation, Conference could decide. I can't say the General Secretary was happy, but in practice he (they because there was more than one) always backed down.

I think the reason was the character of our SOC. It was elected by Regional Committees, with the Chair of the EC allowed to attend without a vote (and he was always helpful). The political composition was diverse, with supporters of the "right" grouping, the centre-left "official grouping", and myself from the far left, now rs21. But on votes we were usually unanimous. That's because we took as our starting point that the Conference was for the delegates not the top table. I was really pleased that we could manage the timetable so that every motion that had been submitted could be debated. And we ensured that Executive Statements that had in the past been used to stifle debate were essentially treated as just another motion.

We helped delegates who wanted to submit Emergency Motions. We let delegates submit provisional drafts, and would then tell them if they needed to make any changes to ensure they were in order before they collected the appropriate number of delegates signatories to formally submit them. Sometimes SOC members even helped in the redrafting with inexperienced delegates.

In my time as Chair, there was one reference back moved. It was because we proposed shortening the lunch break to ensure all motions could be debated, and a United Left delegate opposed because it would interfere with their planned fringe meeting. It was defeated overwhelmingly (with most UL delegates voting against).

When I retired, I gave a leaving speech at the end of Conference. Much to my surprise, I got a standing ovation from the whole of Conference, including the platform! I think it was a recognition that, collectively, the SOC could be a facilitator of democracy, not a barrier. That's something that doesn't appear to happen in Unison, and didn't happen much of the time in Unite's predecessor unions.

I totally agree with you in urging Unison's Regions to think carefully about who that want on the SOC. My colleagues were not always political allies, but they were convenors who could stand up to their employers - and weren't afraid of General Secretaries (even if they had voted for them).

Anonymous said...

Jon, wrong again. The issue is not the make up of the SOC. You may be surprised to learn that the SOC does not purposely prevent controversial motions onto the agenda, we just follow the long standing rules as laid out in our advice to branches every year before conference. Nor do we take requests from HQ about what to accept or reject. We are not interested in the merits of any motion nor what affect the motion will have on UNISON policy, just whether it is competent under the rules. All SOC members are available to give advice on potential motions and suggest changes so they are competent under the rules. Unfortunately most branches submitting motions do not take advantage of this, nor do they read the advice we issue before submitting their motions. Every year motions are ruled out of order for similar reasons and sometimes for consecutive years from the same branches even though they have been told what the issue is. You currently have a fair and knowledgable SOC trying to allow greater debate at conference, by all means suggest we all get replaced, but be careful what you wish for. By the way we are not the NEC's favourite committee either.