Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Outstanding complaints cast a shadow over UNISON General Secretary election result

Christina McAnea has been elected General Secretary of UNISON and deserves congratulations on her victory and best wishes for the challenges she will be leading UNISON members to face. 

The candidate I voted for, rank and file challenger Paul Holmes came a strong second, with more than a third of votes cast - the best showing for any rank and file candidate in UNISON this century.

I have written elsewhere an initial analysis of the election results, from which the following main themes emerge;

1. Christina McAnea won a share of the vote fractionally below that gained by Dave Prentis in 2015 - our new General Secretary needs to reach out to supporters of other candidates if she is to build the strength of our trade union;

2. For the second time in succession our General Secretary has been elected without a majority of the vote - our Conference Standing Orders Committee should facilitate a debate about the merits of an alternative system of voting;

3. The disappointingly low turnout in the election did not significantly reverse the long term trend of declining participation in UNISON elections - increasing member participation will be a major challenge for UNISON activists and officials;

4. Paul Holmes gained the highest share of the vote of any rank and file candidate (and indeed of any defeated candidate) - driving the highest share of votes going to rank and file candidates in 20 years;

5. Holmes’ vote was more than four times that gained by the candidate backed by the Socialist Party, Hugo Pierre - destroying the threadbare justification advanced for he and his supporters having mounted his divisive campaign.

One aspect of the news about the General Secretary election, which has not yet been reported, concerns the numbers of complaints which have been upheld as a result of breaches of the election procedures.

Such breaches have been reported on this blog on more than one occasion.

In the last General Secretary election the outcome of investigations into complaints was published in the report of the Returning Officer and summarised in an Appendix, from which the reader could conclude that 30 complaints had been upheld.

Your blogger is aware, from correspondence with the Returning Officer, of more than 100 specific complaints having been upheld in relation to breaches of the election procedures in this election campaign, which sought to benefit the candidate Christina McAnea.

(As an aside, sources close to the campaign of Paul Holmes believe that no complaints of breaches by supporters of that campaign have been upheld.)

There have been no examples of such astonishing wrongdoing as was exposed in the Greater London Regional Office in 2015, when a staff meeting was misused by the former Regional Secretary as a campaign meeting for a particular candidate. 

It is, however, very disappointing, that after the previous General Secretary election led to a decision of the Assistant Certification Officer, following which (although there does not seem ever to have been the full, inclusive and transparent discussion that was warranted) UNISON reviewed and revised its election procedures - there have been so many instances of breaches of those election procedures, found by the Returning Officer.

The Assistant Certification Officer decided - in 2017 - not to order a rerun of the previous General Secretary election because the evidence suggested that the egregious malpractice sanctioned in the Greater London Regional Office was simply ineffective - and because there was not evidence of widespread malpractice.

It is perhaps likely - but not at all certain - that a similar outcome would now arise were complainants to pursue their complaints to the Certification Officer. This is a matter for the complainants to consider and upon which they will need to decide.

The fact that breaches of the election procedures found to have taken place in 2020 were in connection with misuse of UNISON’s online resources does not make these breaches less significant in an election which (thanks to the pandemic) largely took place on computer screens.

An important consideration for the Returning Officer (who has obviously already made this decision) and, hypothetically, for the Certification Officer (who has not yet been asked) is whether the large number of breaches of the election procedures found to have taken place could have influenced the result of the election.

The size of the majority of the winning candidate over the second placed candidate is one factor which will have been (and would be) taken into account - and it is therefore worth reminding ourselves of how the majority of the successful candidate in this election compares with that in previous elections for UNISON General Secretary;



Second placed candidate



Rodney Bickerstaffe

Peter Hunter



Dave Prentis

Roger Bannister



Dave Prentis

Roger Bannister



Dave Prentis

Roger Bannister



Dave Prentis

Heather Wakefield



Christina McAnea

Paul Holmes


Under the relevant provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, complainants have six months in which to consider whether or not to bring complaints before the Certification Officer.

No doubt complainants will take various factors into account in making their decisions.

Will the trade union take seriously the need to address widespread breaches of our election procedures or will these be treated as dismissively as they were five years ago?

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