Now -read the book!

Here is a link to my memoirs which, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can purchase online at
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)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Labour after New Labour???

I was sorry to miss the Labour Briefing AGM on Saturday but pleased to see a useful report from Louise online here.

The relationship between Labour Party membership and campaigning for labour movement policies is in a state of flux and I shall await with interest reports from the UNISON National Labour Link Forum.

I hope that those present at the Forum can live up to the demands of the moment.

Oh, and I was going to blog something about Alan Milburn's departure from politics.

But then again, why bother?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Lobby the Home Office next Tuesday - the SOAS Cleaners are not Criminals

As the work of catching up after Conference has eaten into my time I have failed to blog much about what went on last week in Brighton. One particular area of activity was getting an NEC statement in opposition to the appalling immigration raid at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Details of the NEC statement are online.

Full credit must go to the delegates from SOAS, the Camden local government branch and Regional Delegate Mandy Berger for pushing for the statement. A lot of work was also done by UNISON officials to chase up the details of what was going on, and it was appropriate that the statement was read by the General Secretary last Friday.

Now we can all lend a hand in the continuing struggle for justice.

SOAS UNISON Branch, UCU and Students' Union have called a lobby of the Home Office (2 Marsham Street, Millbank, SW1) for Tuesday 30 June 2009 at 5.30pm. The lobby is to call on the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to grant extraordinary leave to remain for our 2 colleagues, Rosa Perez and Marina Silva, who are currently being detained at Yarls Wood. It is also to protest the immigration raid itself and the appalling treatment of undocumented migrant workers which is becoming increasingly common

Staff and students at SOAS are calling for Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for the Home
Office, to grant leave to remain with permission to work for Marina Silva and Rosa dePerez,
two of the SOAS cleaners picked up in a brutal immigration raid on 12th June.

Marina is 63 and applied for asylum following the brutal honour killing of her husband and
threats to her own life. Rosa has four children to support in Nicaragua. They remain in
detention following the raid. Their colleagues, including six months pregnant Luzia, were
deported within 48 hours of the raid.

Cleaners at SOAS had demanded and organised for dignity at work with many joining a
union. They had succeeded in winning union recognition from the privatised cleaning firm
ISS and raising their pay to the London Living Wage—higher than other colleges in the area.
It is of grave concern that the raid, organised by ISS, took place shortly after this campaign
and on the very day on which UNISON was due to protest in support of an activist who had
played a leading role in organising the cleaners at SOAS.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thinking about our Party

I was inspired to write to the Guardian as a result of thinking about the implications of the Conference speech of our General Secretary. This is what I said;

“Simon Jenkins says someone should found a Labour party. He's right. The conclusion that New Labour had all but destroyed the Labour party as a vehicle for progressive politics was drawn a few years ago now by those who founded the Labour representation committee, chaired by John McDonnell MP, which now has a thousand members and the affiliation of several trade unions. The question that is arising is whether the electoral meltdown of the party will purge it of its neo-liberal leadership, or whether New Labour's systematic destruction of the party's democratic infrastructure has been so thorough that a new party will have to emerge.

For the moment though it is vitally important to defend as many of those MPs who will speak up for the politics of the left against the neo-liberal consensus as we can. In this context, the call from Unison general secretary Dave Prentis for his union only to back those MPs who will back the union's core policies is most timely. The only institutions with the social weight and political ballast either to reclaim the Labour party or to found a new party of the left are the trade unions.”

I don’t want to be forced out of the Labour Party or to have to found some alternative. Unlike those of my UNISON NEC comrades who conceal their Labour Party membership when standing for election I have always been honest about my political affiliations.

However, if the trade unions are seriously going to fight for our policies in the Labour Party (which means fighting against the Labour Party leadership) then in order to have any leverage we do need to make clear that if we do not gain support for our policies then we will not forever and a day act as cheerleaders for those who attack our members.

We cannot forever support the lesser of two evils. That is not good enough.

This is no more, and no less, than the logic of what Dave Prentis said to UNISON National Delegate Conference.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What do we do about the far right in our own ranks?

A brief addition to my belated reporting from UNISON Conference.

Conference failed to pass with a sufficient majority a couple of Rule Amendments which were attempts to make it easier to discipline members of far right political organisations (of which the British National Party (BNP) is the most obvious example at present) purely for their membership.

Our rules at present permit disciplinary action against - and indeed expulsion of - those who engage in far right political activities. However, following the recent ASLEF case in Europe, the Government legislated (albeit in a very confused way) to address the right of trade unions to expel members of anti-trade union far right political parties and the NEC brought Rule Amendments to Conference to try to fit our Rules to the new legislative provisions.

Opponents of these amendments on the floor of Conference did not oppose action being taken against BNP members in our ranks - quite the contrary they included some of the most staunch opponents of the far right in UNISON. The worries which were expressed were around the widely drawn Rule Amendments which could have been used against members of other political parties.

I regret that the NEC did not simply bring a Rule Amendment forward to proscribe membership of the BNP on the part of UNISON members. I had raised this possibility in prior discussions when the NEC Development and Organisation Committee had had a meeting with a lawyer present. It had not been suggested that this would have been unlawful, rather the counter argument was that far right organisations often change their names and that if we were simply to proscribe the BNP under one name it might emerge again under another.

I have to say that following the recent electoral progress made by the BNP vermin I doubt that they will be in a hurry to abandon this name - and if they did, well we have an Annual Conference and we can amend our Rules if we have a consensus to do so. I hope that a Rule Amendment along these more simple and straightforward lines will be before next year's Conference.

In the mean time however it is simply inexcusable for anyone to suggest that UNISON cannot already take disciplinary action against members of far right organisations in our ranks. If we have information that indicates that a UNISON member is a member of (for example) the BNP then this information provides "reasonable grounds" to believe that the member may have participated in the activities of that organisation.

Under Rule I.3 UNISON members may be expelled if they “give encouragement to, or participate in, the activities of any fascist organisation, faction or grouping whose policies or aims have expressed or implied promotion of white supremacy or racial hatred at their core.” Under Rule I.5.1 a disciplinary investigation may be commenced “where there appear to be reasonable grounds to think that a member might be guilty of a disciplinary offence.” Therefore disciplinary investigations can commence in any case in which there is evidence of BNP membership on the part of a UNISON member.

This is further supported by Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights who concludes an assessment of the current law (and the mess created by amendments introduced in the House of Lords) as follows;

"We are thus left with an extraordinary mess:

As a result of the Employment Relations Act 2004, trade unions may exclude or expel someone (i) wholly because of his or her BNP activities or (ii) mainly because of his or her BNP activities and partly because of his or her BNP membership, and in both cases the action will be lawful, even though the union has not satisīŦed the requirements of the Lords amendments in the Employment Act 2008;

On the other hand, under the new amendments trade unions will be able lawfully to exclude or expel someone (i) wholly because of his or her BNP membership or (ii) mainly because of his or her BNP membership and partly because of his or her BNP activities, but on these occasions only if the detailed substantive and procedural requirements are met and only if no exceptional hardship is caused thereby."

Next year we need to agree a simple Rule Amendment to prohibit members of the BNP from being members of UNISON.

Until then we can continue to pursue any members of UNISON who engage in activities associated with the BNP (or any other organisation which contravenes Rule I.3). I hope that we shall.

UNISON Structures Review - three steps forward and another step in the right direction

Continuing my belated reporting from last week's UNISON Conference, and picking out issues which I think are important, I want to say something about the debate on UNISON's bargaining structures.

The Conference agreed to merge the Water and Environment Service Group with the Transport Service Group, to create a new Police and Justice Service Group and to create a new Service Group for the Community and Voluntary Sector. These changes are rightly applauded on the UNISON website.

For those who had been advocating some of these changes - particularly in the voluntary sector - this had been a long time coming. It was noteworthy that in spite of some scaremongering about opposition to this change in particular, no such opposition was in fact expressed.

The one change which did not take place as part of the package of associated measures was the devolution of bargaining responsibility within the Service Groups from the Service Group to its Sector Committees. This proposal did not just fail to get the necessary two thirds majority, it failed to command even a simple majority.

Speaking personally (as I always do on this blog) I am pleased that Conference rejected this particular proposal this year, on the basis of the arguments advanced by the excellent speakers against, all of whom made clear that there is no significant opposition to this devolution, but that Conference wants to see clear proposals for the democratic accountability of Sector Committees before agreeing to entrust them with autonomy over some of the most vital issues dealt with by our trade union.

Much of the work associated with the review of UNISON structures can now continue - and next year I hope we will see a comprehensive - and democratic - package of measures to further develop the necessary devolution of bargaining responsibility.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Slapping the Hand that Bites Us...

I'll start my delayed reporting from UNISON Conference in Brighton with the speech of General Secretary, Dave Prentis, which he gave on Tuesday 16 June.

In a speech which both shocked and pleased the great majority of delegates, Dave called upon the UNISON Labour Link Committee immediately to suspend all the Constituency Development Plans which UNISON has with Constituency Labour Parties, with a view in future to supporting only those Members of Parliament and Parliamentary candidates who support our core policies.

A special meeting of the UNISON Labour Link Committee later in Conference week endorsed this call by a majority, although a small but recalcitrant right wing rump were reportedly dejected and outraged. The detail of what will now be done will now have to be discussed by the UNISON National Labour Link Forum in early July.

In making his call - which reflected the policy demand which has been advanced by leftwing activists in the Union for some years - the General Secretary consciously used a phrase which had been used some years previously in a memorable Conference speech by Glenn Kelly, Bromley UNISON Branch Secretary and a prominent Socialist Party member.

Dave echoed Glenn in saying that UNISON members are fed up with "feeding the hand that bites them". This deliberate use of a phrase from an earlier debate sent a striking message, to experienced Conference delegates, about the need for new thinking.

What was remarkable about this speech was not just that, had it been a Conference motion, it would have been ruled out of order for breaching the autonomy of the Political Fund but that, in reality it spells the end of that autonomy.

However much the Rule Book may continue to give sole responsibility for the management of the Political Fund to the National Labour Link Committee, it has now been made clear - by the General Secretary - that this must substantively, if not formally, be subordinate to the Union as a whole.

Prentis had reportedly been working on his speech (in strict secrecy) for some weeks though its contents, (reflecting a significant volte face on the part of the leadership of UNISON) came as a surprise to almost all who heard it.

Whether this will prove to have been merely a temporary reaction to political difficulties - as was the suspension of donations to the Labour Party during the dispute over the Local Government Pension Scheme - or whether this will lead to permanent change remains to some extent to be seen.

However, having let the genie of the accountability of Labour Link to the wider Union out of the bottle constructed from the Rule Book and the deals done when UNISON was created in 1993, Dave Prentis may have started a process of change which will not stop.

The fact that the Labour Link Committee was not given prior notice of these very significant proposals is in its way as important as the substance of what was said.

With only 30% of public service workers currently planning to vote Labour in the next General Election and less than one in three UNISON members choosing to pay into the Affiliated part of the Political Fund, the continued viability of UNISON's affiliation to the Labour Party is called increasingly into question.

I don't know whether the present political and economic crisis is the terminal crisis of Labourism but it could all too easily be terminal for UNISON Labour Link if those who still see value in a relationship with the Labour Party do not very rapidly make the change which Conference so obviously wanted.

If the National Labour Link Committee put to the National Forum clear policy demands for the next manifesto and a proposal for the commitments we would seek before supporting Parliamentary candidates, and if these plans are subject to genuine consultation throughout the wider Union then it may be possible to preserve the relationship between the Union and the Party in some form.

On the basis of the past performance of UNISON Labour Link it is not possible to be optimistic about this.

Another element of Dave's speech was the reference to independent political campaigning by UNISON under the new banner of the "Million Voices for Change" campaign, as part of which the National Executive issued a statement on the economic crisis updating a positive and progressive statement issued last October as the scale of the financial crisis was becoming clear. UNISON activists can use the framework of this national campaign to develop local initiatives.

Those who can participate in UNISON Labour Link should do so - not least by using this week and next to nominate leftwing candidates in the elections for the directly elected seats on the National Labour Link Committee. Nomination forms are online now - and branches need to convene meetings of Labour Link payers to make valid nominations(refer to the election procedures).

The majority of UNISON members outside the Labour Link (and those within) need to seize the Million Voices for Change campaign and sign up to give it teeth, so that instead of feeding the hand that bites us we can slap it, or even bite back.

Personal report of the NEC meeting at the close of Conference

I am being wilfully lazy and not blogging further information about UNISON National Conference just yet. I will however publish the following brief report which I have circulated to UNISON branches in the Greater London Region;

The first meeting of the newly elected National Executive Council(NEC) was scheduled to take place at the close of National Delegate Conference on Friday afternoon.

This meeting is chaired each year, at the outset, by the General Secretary, since the former President and Vice-Presidents have ceased to hold office and the main item of business is the election of a new “Presidential Team”.

At the commencement of the meeting, General Secretary Dave Prentis noted the presence of John McDermott from the Yorkshire and Humberside Region. John had been a candidate in the NEC election and had secured 4,670 votes. His opponent had secured 4,577 votes but had been declared elected.

Dave requested – but did not instruct – John to leave the meeting. John pointed out (quite reasonably in my view) that he had won the election and was entitled to be present. In response to John’s refusal to comply with his request, Dave invited Deputy General Secretary Keith Sonnet to make a statement.

Keith announced that the meeting of the NEC would be adjourned until 8 July at Mabledon Place and members of the NEC left the meeting room without having elected a President or either Vice President.

I have queried the power used by officers to adjourn the NEC meeting as it was clear to me that there were other options to enable the election of the Presidential Team. I will report to branches on any response. Given the highly unusual circumstances in which the Independent Scrutineer has declared as elected a candidate who did not win their election it may well be that the Union will not be able to resolve this difficult question without the intervention of the Certification Officer. I will report to branches further as information comes to light.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Blogging interrupted

Conference is a busy time and I haven't been able to keep this blog up to date whilst running around at Conference. Regular readers, Sid and Doris Delegate have probably been too busy to read this anyway.

I will post shortly about the very important speech from our General Secretary, which sounded the death knell for the effective autonomy of UNISON Labour Link and fired a symbolic but important warning shot at the Labour Party, formally adopting the policy advocated for some years by the United Left and using the phrase coined by Glenn Kelly - that our members are fed up of "feeding the hand that bites us". I understand that not all members of the Labour Link Committee are happy with Dave's speech, but if Labour Link had not been consistently inadequate over such a long period we might not have reached this crossroads.

I will also post further soon about the Rules debate, in which Conference sensibly rejected an attempt to devolve bargaining responsibility from Service Groups to Sector Committees without sufficient assurance of democratic accountability, and failed to agree a Rule Amendment which, in seeking to ease the expulsion of members of far right parties was too vaguely worded.

UNISON has a list of BNP members within the Union and should now share this with our branches so that branches can investigate whether there have been any breaches of our current Rules (under which we can and have disciplined far right activists). It is a shame that some of those who supported the unsuccesful Rule amendment are suggesting that our current Rules cannot be used in this way and I hope that when the disappointment at failing to win a card vote lifts a more constructive approach will then be taken.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A tale of standing orders, card votes and reprioritisation...

This week is UNISON Conference week. National Delegate Conference begins on Tuesday with Service Group Conferences today and tomorrow. I'll blog some more later in the week since, as a branch delegate, I am fairly busy at Local Government Conference.

Local Government Conference kicked off today with a session focusing largely upon the impact of the recession upon our members. A series of fairly worthy motions were agreed pretty much unanimously as a succession of speakers came to the rostrum to report on job cuts and attacks on services.

The platform speaker who condemned the capitalist system deserved the thanks of delegates for waking them up on a Sunday morning. If only the motion to which he had been speaking had had such a thorough analysis of our problems!

The afternoon saw a debate on pay in which a Composite Motion drawn from submissions from the Northern and North West Regions was passed. This motion, in my view unfortunately, seeks to erect new bureaucratic obstacles in the way of national strike action, following the mixed response to, and consequenly limited gains from, the strike action last July.

As the platform speaker who supported this motion observed, the National Joint Council Committee were not wrong to call for a strike ballot nor to call for strike action once a majority had voted for this. To have failed to do so, for all the indications of uncertainty, would have done greater damage to our Union.

Having given a brief indication of the important discussions at the Conference today I shall now please regular readers Sid and Doris Conference-Anorak with a tale of standing orders, card votes and reprioritisation...

Lambeth branch won the heart of the Standing Orders Committee(SOC) through our association with a Card Vote on Reference Back of an SOC Report in relation to our motion 52 (also on pay) - which had not been admitted to the Preliminary Agenda and had therefore not been available for prioritisation before it reappeared on the Final Agenda (at the bottom of the order of business).

Lambeth asked that the motion be timetabled (as prioritised motions are) or that, at the least, it should be ahead of non-prioritised motions (since the only reason it had not been prioritised was because it had been excluded from the Preliminary Agenda). On Saturday SOC had said this could not be done because there was no evidence that the motion would have been prioritised had it been admitted to the Preliminary Agenda. The London delegates' briefing on Saturday evening voted overwhelmingly in a straw poll that the Region would have prioritised the motion, so Lambeth challenged the decision of SOC on the floor of Conference.

Conference supported reference back on this point in the morning but, when SOC returned after lunch, they said they were not inclined to change their mind. Conference was warned that if we voted again for reference back we would have failed to accept the order of business and the Conference would have to adjourn whilst SOC reconsidered the matter. When the Vice President saw the vote on the show of hands he declared it close and called a card vote.

In order to avoid the embarrasment of continuing with business whilst the card vote was counted, the Conference moved on to a lengthy presentation from the Newcastle City Branch.

The Card Vote supported Lambeth's request for reference back (by a considerable margin), but rather than simply responding by moving motion 52 to the top of the non-prioritised motions (which is all we were asking for) SOC have decreed that there shall be a reprioritsation process for the previously non-prioritised motions (even though - given the slow progress of Conference today it is now very unlikely that we shall debate any of them...)

In fairness to SOC this problem has arisen as a result of the referral of the motion between two different Standing Orders Committees and the inability - given unavoidable timetables - of the prioritisation process to deal with motions in such circumstances. This is clearly something to be picked up in the review of Conferences (a process so valuable that it has already led to more comfortable chairs in the Brighton Conference Centre!)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Putting the Swingometer to one side...

The results of the UNISON NEC elections did not produce the increase in numbers on the left for which I and others had hoped. In general the results offer little comfort to any of us - regardless of politics - who want to see greater engagement of trade union members in our movement.

The turnout - around 7% in most constituencies - is so low that it is unwise to draw conclusions from the results about the views of UNISON members in general. With these levels of turnout the results can only tell you a little about the degree to which different candidates were able to organise and mobilise support. They can tell you nothing at all about the 90%+ of our members who did not participate.

If we had a swingometer it wouldn't tell us much.

Some high profile NEC members lost their seats, both on the left (where, for example, incumbent candidates in the health service group lost their seats) and amongst the establishment (with two leading Committee Chairs defeated). Other leading NEC members hung on to their seats by narrow margins (first time candidate Alec McFadden came close in the North West Region for example).

In general it would be impossible to read into these results any vote of confidence in the line currently being taken by the UNISON leadership. Nor, however can those of us on the left generally conclude that we have given sufficient confidence to activists and members that we have a credible alternative. This, I think, was the factor that I failed to take sufficiently into account in anticipating a change in the political balance on the NEC which has not really emerged.

Those candidates of the left who are members of the Socialist Party performed particularly well. This probably reflects both a determined and effective approach to election work and the current popularity of the vigorously "anti-Labour" approach reflected in the election addresses of those candidates. Candidates prepared to own up to a belief in fighting for our policies from within the Labour Party almost certainly cost ourselves votes and support in the current climate. (I think we can already see our leadership distancing themselves from the Labour Party and preparing for the coming Conservative Government).

I will be interested to hear the views of other comrades at Conference over the coming week, and will reflect further on the implications of the results. One point that needs to be considered is the large number of our members who do bother to vote but do not then use all of the (often many) votes which they have at their disposal. Is this because we fail to explain adequately how many votes members have? Or is it a reflection of the personal votes of individual candidates drawn from members who are indifferent between other candidates?

Given the very low turnout in these elections it would be very difficult for the Union to conduct any opinion polling to get at answers to these questions. I think we have to work this out for ourselves - and that those of us on the left who believe that UNISON needs a change of direction need to debate how we develop our organisation and persuade members to support socialist leadership.

Congratulations to all those who won and commiserations to all those who did not win. Having myself suffered a far more ignominious defeat in an internal UNISON election than any of the defeated candidates in this year's NEC elections I know that comrades who did not win will bounce back! (Go to p8 of the document in that last link if you want to remind yourself of the results of the last General Secretary election...)

Friday, June 12, 2009

What is to be done?

It is not difficult to work out what we need now politically.

John McDonnell puts it well over at the Guardian website as follows;

"A consensus checklist of what constitutes real change is emerging from many sources. Securing jobs by intervening in manufacturing and restoring trade union rights; securing homes by a mass local authority house-building programme; stopping the squandering of public resources by ending the privatisation of public services; reasserting the government's green credentials with no third runway; for young people freezing, as the first step towards abolishing, student fees; for pensioners restoring the link between pensions and earnings; halting the attacks on welfare; paying for our programme by fair taxation and cutting out the waste on the likes of Trident renewal and ID cards; and making government ruthlessly clean, open and fair with immediate electoral reform."

This is pretty much in line with UNISON policy.

The interesting question therefore is whether UNISON will align itself with those Parliamentarians who will support this agenda - or whether we will contine to associate ourselves with a group of MPs of whom we appear to be so ashamed that we have removed the list from our website.

No such debate can take place formally at our Conference over the coming week because of the way in which the Standing Orders Committee views the implications of Rule J and the autonomy of the Political Fund Committees from Conference and the NEC.

Other unions - including the CWU last week - can have this debate, but UNISON delegates will have to discuss the future political direction of our trade union at fringe meetings.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Being lobbied in the run up to Conference

As a UNISON NEC member I’ve had a couple of messages from UNISON members lobbying in the run up to Conference over the last two days, one welcome and one less so.

The Dudley Branch are lobbying us for support for their sensible motion that we should affiliate to the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC), which has not been prioritised for debate (and will not therefore be discussed) but which the NEC has agreed to support “with qualifications”.

The “qualification” is that the NEC was told that we would not be permitted to affiliate. A diligent reader of this blog checked this out with the CSC who advised that they would very much welcome UNISON’s affiliation.

Since motions which are not taken at Conference are then referred to the NEC it is well worthwhile for the Dudley branch to be lobbying NEC members to support affiliation to the Campaign and I wish them luck.

A less welcome letter appeared to come from one UNISON branch official also on behalf of two others. This was a complaint about the decision not to permit the “Trade Union Friends of Israel” to have a stall at our Conference this year.

In objecting to this decision the letter’s authors said; “We believe that Unison have a duty of care to all members who attend conference no matter what there point of view and that FREE SPEECH and DEMOCRACEY must be upheld at all costs or the TRADE UNION MOVEMENT is LOST. We feel that we are attending conference in an atmosphere of HOSTILITY and INTIMADATION and FEAR of VIOLENCE.”

Having been copied in on the letter I expressed a personal view in response; “Speaking purely personally I am very glad that there will not be a TUFI stall at UNISON Conference this year. Following the genocidal attack upon Gaza earlier this year I would have been deeply offended had we given space to any group acting as apologists for the Zionist state. If any UNISON member wishes to ensure that TUFI is permitted a stand at future Conferences it would be very simple to put a motion to Conference to that effect. If that motion were supported by a majority of members in a branch, then prioritised for debate at Conference and then supported at Conference this would demonstrate that that was the wish of UNISON members. Incidentally, I think that there is a real concern about violence in relation to the presence of TUFI at our Conference, but that this is a concern about the violence perpetrated by the Israeli Defence Force upon the Palestinian people.I should stress that this is not an official response from UNISON but simply the expression of personal opinion from an individual to whom you had copied your message.”

I hope that Conference passes the Composite motion on Palestine and that we continue to work in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Update on Friday - I apologise for any offence caused to the authors of the letter in the original version of this post, which has now been edited. I strongly disagree with what was said in the letter but respect absolutely the right of fellow trade unionists to express their views.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Conference approaches - how do we respond to the far right in our own ranks...?

Apologies for the lack of posts. I do mean to do some more analysis of the UNISON NEC election results soon, but for now, as well as trying to sort out work in the branch ahead of Conference week I also have some preparation to do.

There are some good fringe meetings coming up, which I will blog about here (before and after) and at one of these delegates will have an opportunity to hear from victims of what appears to be (to a reasonable observer) unjustified and politically motivated disciplinary action within the Union.

There are those in membership of the union (active supporters of far right organisations for example) whom many UNISON activists might think should face some sanction from the Union. This has proven possible under UNISON's existing rules - and UNISON has defended itself against legal challenge in such a case in the past (and won support for having done so).

Because of recent legal changes UNISON's NEC is proposing a rule amendment which is intended to strengthen the hand of the Union to discipline supporters of far right parties. This follows discussion at the Development and Organisation Committee in December. However, because of the timing of the receipt of legal advice by the Union, the Committee did not have an opportunity to have a full and informed debate about what is now Rule Amendment No. 4 (proposed at the NEC in February).

This Rule Amendment is quite distinct from the campaigning work which we have done and must do against the far right, but inevitably the debates will come to overlap.

As I have said before, I would have preferred a simple Rule Amendment which said that membership of the British National Party was incompatible with membership of UNISON. Instead what we have got is a more vaguely worded formula which states that applicants for membership are ineligible if they are members of a political party contrary to UNISON's Aims and Values (with particular reference to the provisions concerning equality).

The argument which was used against my proposal at the previous Committee meeting (in December) where we had a briefing from a solicitor, was not that the specific prohibition would be unlawful but that it would enable the far right to get round the ban by changing the name of their organisation. I can understand this argument as having had force a few years ago, but now I don't think that it is at all compelling. The Act does seem to permit a prohibition on membership of a particular organisation.

A specific prohibition allows Conference to decide what is and is not acceptable to us. A general prohibition on active membership of parties which are contrary to UNISON's Aims and Values is being perceived by some on the left as potentially available for use against members of political parties other than parties of the far right. The problem with Rule Amendment 4 is that, because of the power of the NEC to interpret the Rule Book, it gives the NEC the final say about which political parties are - and are not - unacceptable to UNISON.

This will therefore, I think, be a difficult debate. At the risk of offending those who believe rather too passionately in the collective responsibility of NEC members (Sid and Doris Hoxha) I think I have to say at the moment that, as an individual and in a personal capacity, I am a long way from being convinced by the approach we are currently taking...

Monday, June 08, 2009

A grim day

For trade unionists the results of the Euro elections in the UK are very worrying.

Parties of the right came first and second - and the Party to which some of us are still affiliated got less than one vote in six. The far right gained representation, and those trying to organise to the left of Labour were utterly marginalised.

Those who hope that the Greens may offer us something for the future will have been somewhat encouraged, and some on the left may look enviously to France, Germany or even Ireland. The unavoidable fact is, however, that the left (in the widest sense) did appallingly badly in the UK.

These results must have significant implications for two important debates within UNISON. The first is the debate we are not really allowed to have but have nevertheless been having for years, concerning our relationship with the Labour Party, to which less than one third of our members now contribute via the Affiliated section of our political fund. The second is about how trade unions should contribute to confronting - and defeating - the far right, and whether Unite Against Fascism, Searchlight or someone else has the best approach.

Anyone who today thinks that these election results simply confirm that their own personal view is even more correct than it was before has probably not been paying attention to the scale of the problems we face.

Before rushing to draw conclusions about the implications of what might just be the terminal crisis of Labourism for our general political work I would like more time to reflect - and more information about how trade unions elsewhere in Europe are thinking of responding to the generalised crisis of social democracy expressed in the Europe-wide results.

Before concluding what works best to fight the fascists I would certainly like to see some informed analysis of the differential results for the far right by local authority area together with an informed assessment of the reasons for the differences which will emerge.

Labour clearly needs a change of policies rather more than personalities, but I won't be holding my breath waiting for the PLP to do the right thing and change direction (and since the General Secretaries of the affiliated unions generally appear to be waiting rather than piling on constructive pressure I can only hope that they aren't holding their breath either...)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Historic fourth term?

I doubt that the Party of which I have been a member now for thirty years is heading for a fourth term.

I however, have been elected to the UNISON NEC for the fourth time - thanks to all those who voted for me.

Overall candidates of the left failed to make the advances for which we had hoped - indeed gains in some areas were balanced by the loss of good comrades from the NEC.

With a turnout of just 7% in Greater London it is difficult to base too much detailed analysis of what our members think based upon the votes in NEC elections - though judgements can be made about the level of organisation of those supporting different candidates.

I will comment further soon - for now its back to the telly and the results of some other election...

UNISON NEC meeting 3 June 2009

Here is the personl report of Wednesday's NEC meeting which I circulated yesterday to UNISON branches in Greater London.

(1) Conference business

The NEC discussed some outstanding items in relation to the business
for National Delegate Conference. I argued in support of Motion 7 from
the Croydon Branch which seeks a review of the scheme of
representation for branch delegations at Conference. The Chair of the
Development and Organisation Committee recommended opposition on the
grounds that the Chairs of each of the National Self Organised Groups
had reported their opposition to the motion on the basis that it
watered down the current scheme. His position commanded majority

The NEC also agreed policy on amendments and composite motions. The
NEC is supporting the twelve composites but not (yet) any amendments
to composites. This includes amendment E.1 from Islington on Housing
which calls for a programme of Council house building (on which a
decision was deferred pending discussions with the branch) and
amendment I.1 from the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority
which calls for the nationalisation of the banks (which is opposed).
Personally I would support both those amendments.

The draft Order of Business for Conference (which will appear in
Standing Orders Committee Report No.2) was considered. One of the NEC
representatives on SOC reported that fewer motions had been timetabled
for debate in recent years but that this would only lead to swift
progress on the Remaining Order of Business (a.k.a. “the snake”) if
delegates showed discipline and started moving business along from the
first day of Conference.

The list of NEC speakers at Conference was not available on the day
but was circulated shortly thereafter. As my NEC colleagues have
kindly given me a week to rest my vocal chords (by not allocating me
any speeches) I shall be available to advise and assist delegates from
the Region.

The NEC also considered the Structures Review, associated with Motion
9 and several Rule Amendments on the Conference agenda. The Motion and
Rule Amendments have all been timetabled for the Thursday afternoon of
Conference. Although at a briefing the previous day the Chair of the
Development and Organisation Committee had reported that he would be
recommending that the NEC withdraw Rule Amendment 10 (merging the
Higher Education Service Group with the Further Education Sector) he
did not do this following a request from the General Secretary that we
leave that decision until the Tuesday morning of Conference. At the
briefing the previous day I had expressed my regret that attempts to
raise the question of democratic Sector Conferences at the same time
as proposing to devolve responsibility for bargaining from Service
Groups to Sectors had not been successful.

I expressed my personal view that to pass Rule Amendments 13 and 14
without building democratic Sector Conferences into our Rule Book
would be a mistake which would create a democratic deficit. In
response it was pointed out that so far no branches have responded to
the draft document setting out guidelines on the democratic
accountability of sectors. The debates on Thursday afternoon will be
amongst the most important at this year's Conference – not least
because the great bulk of policy motions on the agenda are supported
by the NEC as most of those which were not supported were also not
prioritised for debate.

The final item of Conference business was to consider the accounts for
the year ended December 2008 which had already been sent to all
Conference delegates. The NEC also received further detailed financial
information on which I will report further below.

The NEC is proposing an Emergency Motion to Conference on the trial of
Aung San Suu Kyi (an honorary life member of UNISON) by the Burmese
military junta. This will be referred to the SOC who will decide
whether it appears on the agenda.

(2) Recruitment debate

Sometimes the report on recruitment is almost nodded through at the
NEC and sometimes we have a serious debate. This meeting saw the
latter approach, with General Secretary Dave Prentis saying that
“there has got to be a revolution in the way this Union is run” in
order to focus on recruitment and increasing union density in
anticipation of a Conservative Government attacking the trade unions.
I asked about what we could do to generalise good practice and pointed
to the excellent example of the Kirklees local government branch which
has very high trade union density and Dave confirmed that he had
visited Kirklees recently. In his contribution Dave raised the
prospect of replacing Regional Organisers, as they leave, with more
Area Organiser and Local Organiser posts to focus on recruitment. The
Union now has detailed information on UNISON density in most of our
lead employers but has not published this beyond sharing it with
Regions. As well as anticipating hostility from the next Government
and, particularly in local government, the Tory dominated employers,
there is also a concern that UNITE may respond to significant job
losses in manufacturing by launching recruitment drives in direct
competition with UNISON.

(3) Public Sector Pay Negotiations

It was reported that the local government employers in England Wales
and Northern Ireland had not followed through with their threat to
withdraw any pay offer if it was not agreed by 1 June and that a
further offer might be forthcoming after the local elections (although
not that this is likely to be particularly generous!)

NHS Pay Review Body staff are within the multi-year pay deal and since
(given the economic situation) any attempt now to reopen the deal
would not lead to a larger award the trade union side will resist any
attempts to reopen the deal at present.

Higher Education members have rejected an offer of 0.3% and Further
Education members have rejected an offer of 1%.

It is clear that we face a difficult bargaining environment across the
public sector as employers anticipate spending cuts to come and use
the opportunity of private sector pay freezes and pay cuts to make
derisory pay offers to our members.

(4) Equal Pay

As usual the NEC received a confidential report on Equal Pay
litigation about which I cannot report in detail. It is proposed that
Conference will be asked to commence Friday morning in private session
in order to take Motion 125 and I hope that this will provide an
opportunity to update delegates.

(5) A Million Voices for Change

The General Secretary introduced to the NEC the “Million Voices for
Change” campaign which has been developed by a working party of the
Policy Committee in order to implement an earlier NEC decision to
campaign around the NEC statement on the economic crisis issued last
October. The intention of this campaign is to promote the progressive
policies which UNISON has agreed, both with a view to influencing
Government and to building the profile of our policies, particularly
with our own members. An initial leaflet is available to order and a
dedicated section of the website has been established. It is envisaged
that the “Million Voices” theme will be able to be used by Service
Groups, Regions and branches to give a coherent approach to
campaigning across the Union and that the campaign will run through
and beyond the next General Election, mobilising our members for the
challenges which we can foresee both now and from the next Government.

I asked the obvious question about why we were using the slogan of a
“million voices” when we have 1.3 Million member and got the
reasonable response that it is a better slogan (and one that
apparently worked for President Obama...)

Since Dave Prentis had said, in introducing the campaign, that “we did
not need to get a million signatures on a petition” I also asked why
we were not also supporting the recently launched “Peoples Charter”
(supported by UNISON's Scottish Council). To this question I received
the less satisfactory answer that UNISON should run our own campaigns
because we are the people who represent public service workers and
that we should not follow anyone else. I hear echoes in this response
of our refusal a few years ago to support the “Public Services Not
Private Profit Campaign” - and would have thought that the experience
of recent pay rounds would have demonstrated the need for trade union

I also asked what the campaign meant for our intervention around the
forthcoming election, suggesting that we should be asking candidates
if they supported our campaign and publicising the answers to our
members. Since less than a third of UNISON members now contribute to
UNISON Labour Link this question will inevitably arise. This question
received the reasonable response that the campaign is at an early

There will be considerable information about the “Million Voices”
campaign at Conference and it is clearly essential that, against the
backdrop of economic and political crises, UNISON makes the public
case for our progressive policies.

(6) Members of Parliament – expenses and allowances

As part of the General Secretary's report (in which he also reported
on our strong support for the campaign of the Communication Workers
Union against the proposed part privatisation of the Royal Mail) Dave
expressed himself very forcefully about the disgraceful conduct of a
number of Members of Parliament who have abused lax and generous
arrangements to claim allowances and expenses. He rightly pointed to
the contrast between the conduct of these MPs and the draconian way in
which low paid public sector workers are often treated if, for
example, our members face the suspicion of benefit fraud.

This provoked a lengthy discussion in which several members of the
National Labour Link Committee reported their support for the decision
of the Labour Party National Executive Council to establish the
so-called “star chamber” to investigate allegations against MPs. Local
Government NEC member, Glen Kelly, proposed that the NEC should set up
a sub group to review the conduct of members of the UNISON group of
MPs with a view to ensuring that MPs whose conduct might have brought
UNISON into disrepute would no longer be members of the group. This
proposal was withdrawn on the basis of assurances from the General
Secretary and the Chair of the Labour Link Committee that this work
would be undertaken under the auspices of the Labour Link Committee
and would be reported back to the full NEC.

Subsequent to this discussion I have been asked why the list of the
members of the UNISON group of MPs has disappeared from our website
and I am awaiting an explanation of this from officers.

(7) Financial reports

The NEC was indebted to Glenn Kelly for asking a series of detailed
questions on the various financial reports before the NEC which
included details of the report of the audit of last year's account and
the accounts for the first three months of this year.

If any branches pay honoraria to branch officers they should be aware
that such payments are taxable. UNISON has made a payment of £600,000
to HMRC in order to resolve concerns about unpaid tax on honoraria
paid over the past six years and all future honoraria payments will
have to be made via UNISON HQ (with tax being deducted before the
payments are passed on to branch officers). Several NEC members
commented that it would be better to cease honoraria payments
altogether and to seek to ensure that members are not out of pocket by
payment of appropriate expenses, a view which I share.

There has been an overspend of £48,000 in the Democratic Services
budget for the first three months of this year of which £30,000 is
attributed to travel, subsistence, accommodation and premises hire
associated with Rule I (internal UNISON disciplinary) meetings. The
question was asked why these meetings take place in expensive hotels.
This question was not answered.

I hope that this report is of interest and look forward to continuing
to report to London branches over the next two years. Thanks to those who voted for me to continue on the NEC. I'll post comment and analysis on the election results in due course.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Labour's crisis - the unions must speak

James Purnell deserved our contempt well before yesterday - not just for his personal conduct but for his reactionary politics.

I hope he never serves in another Cabinet.

If however this Blairite coup is leading inexorably to the defenestration of Gordon Brown by the same sycophants and fools in the PLP who refused to nominate an opposing candidate two years ago then it is vital that the Left begins to prepare now.

The Labour Party must change direction very quickly and dramatically to avoid catastrophe. The trade unions have a responsibility to act (as we failed to two years ago). If a vacancy arises for Labour Leader then the Left must have a candidate to articulate the policies which could command massive support - abandoning privatisation, cancelling Trident and ID cards, and resisting cuts in jobs, pensions and public services.

The Peoples Charter sets out such a positive popular programme, which also reflects the policies adopted by UNISON.

The trade unions must back those in the Labour Party who back these progressive trade union policies.

That does not include Alan Johnson.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

We need a revolution?

In anticipation of a fuller report from today's meeting of the UNISON NEC which is underway now I thought I would share what our General Secretary had to say in a debate on recruitment (set against the backdrop of low union density and the prospect of a Tory Government).

Dave said that there has got to a revolution in the way this Union is run in order to devote more resources to recruitment, and that we need to move forward on an independent basis.

I am always pleased to hear the need for positive change in UNISON argued for in a forceful way.