Friday, December 30, 2016
This moment has been coming for a long time.
In the early twentieth century, British politics grew up from being a battle between “liberal” and “conservative” wings of the ruling class and became, by the mid-twentieth century about the conflict between representatives of the working class and of the ruling class.
After the working class had had to be armed to put back into its bottle the nazi djinn released by a bourgeoisie terrified by the October revolution, our Party formed our greatest ever Government which built a welfare state that underpinned a generation of progress for working people, leading to the pinnacle of support for our movement (in 1979).
However, the impossibility of reforming capitalism into a society which could sustainably be organised in the interests of the working class in the long term meant that the economic crisis created for the ruling class by the power of our side was resolved (in the absence of a socialist leadership of our class) – by Thatcherism – through our defeat and at our expense.
As we were defeated domestically so the (terribly flawed and often horrendous, yet real) global alternative to capitalism was destroyed by the failure of its bureaucrat leaders to foresee that they could never win a global arms race with rapacious global capitalism.
The “fall of the wall” began (or accelerated?) a process of decomposition of social democratic parties (in Europe at least) which has been perhaps most pronounced in Greece but has been universal. Much of the political left deluded ourselves from time to time that this was a positive development. Some still do.
Right wing social democracy sought salvation in the Blairite “Third Way” and an ultimately doomed marriage between social and economic liberalism, a dream that could only be sustained for a while – whilst the economy permitted the ruling class to afford it.
The economic crisis which made the “Third Way” unaffordable led to Conservative Government in the United Kingdom (as it has eclipsed social democracy through most of Europe) and the reaction to the revealed irrelevance of the flaccid careerists who had dominated the Blair/Brown Labour Party has led to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Your blogger welcomes Corbyn’s leadership as I welcomed his candidacy even before it had become fashionable to do so (and if I abstain from the national Momentum “organisation” created to give organisational form to a fan club it is only because I despise and despair of the careerists who flutter around it as flies surround a cow pat).
However, I understand and appreciate that just at the same time that a socialist has risen (for the first time) to lead the Labour Party, so the class struggle has been eclipsed as the organising principle of British politics because of defeats previously inflicted upon our movement. The tragedy of the 2015 General Election was not simply the first Tory majority in 23 years but that the decision to call a referendum on the EU would reorganise our national politics around an internal disagreement within the ruling class.
This has now happened. The key political question in the UK is not currently whether you are for the working class or the ruling class. It is whether you are for the xenophobes and isolationists or the “globalising” exploiters. (For the avoidance of doubt, your blogger takes the latter side as should all internationalists and socialists).
Obviously the task of socialists is to (re)build the working class movement (in part in the hope that we can develop our national polity in the direction of class politics once more). Any socialist outside the Labour Party is merely a political tourist now – and within the Labour Party we must of course support the socialist Leader of the Party.
However, we cannot possibly offer uncritical support to a leadership which is plainly unable to fathom the depths into which the national polity is sinking. To suggest that Labour can make “Brexit” work for working people is a lie that should not be told.
The sad but simple truth is that we cannot prevent the marginalisation of Labour whilst our politics is fundamentally defined by a dichotomy which is not class struggle (any more than the working class in the occupied six counties have been able to build a working class party under the shadow of a polity dominated by the national struggle).
This is most certainly not a failure of “Corbynism” (if such a thing exists) and the solution is not a triumph of the residual Blairite careerists who form the majority of the terminally unimpressive Parliamentary Labour Party (or of the elements of the trade union bureaucracy who support them).
However, neither the ragged remnants of right-wing social democracy flying the flag for “Progress” nor the rag, tag and bobtail upon whom the current Party leadership are forced to rely appear yet to have faced the reality of the change wrought upon our national polity and the consequences of that change.
This would be the point in such a blog post at which the reader might expect a (more or less) trite answer to the problems previously identified.
I am happy to disappoint.
I don’t know the answers to any of the problems posed above.
Neither do you.
We have some thinking to do.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Continuing the theme of sharing with you, poor reader, the meanderings of my muddled mind arising from three days in the recent hearing before the Assistant Certification Officer (without touching upon the matters in the case itself) I have been asking myself about the proper relationship between a trade union and its employees.
This is a topic which has been the subject of debate in our movement for more than a century. I have frequently blogged on the topic of the trade union bureaucracy – although these days I fear this sort of discussion can end up in a Rule I investigation (!)
Clearly large trade unions need to employ staff to carry out various functions that it would be impractical for members to carry out for ourselves. It is to be hoped that many of those we employ will be committed to the principles of trade unionism and UNISON has inherited a tradition that employees of the union may remain, or become, members of the union which employs them.
In UNISON our Rule Book says that staff can be members of our trade union, at Rule C.2.9, but that they shall not be members “of any branch or of any Group or of any Region” (Rule C.220.127.116.11).
That is a rule which, to the casual observer, might be said to be honoured in the breach – since there is a “National Staff Branch” of UNISON which, even if it exists only for the convenience of administration of membership, does nevertheless exist in breach of UNISON Rules.
Rule C.2.9 precludes members who are employees from voting for membership of any lay body (such as the National Executive Council) whereas it explicitly provides (at Rule C.2.9.3) for a right to vote in a political fund ballot. Interestingly the rule is silent on whether members in accordance with Rule C.2.9 have the right to vote in elections for General Secretary, although the convention appears to be that they are given that right.
UNISON members reflecting upon what (little) we have achieved since 1993 need to be prepared to rethink our trade union from first principles and therefore, in the first place, we need to debate whether or not it is appropriate that staff employed by a democratic lay-led workers' organisation should themselves be members of that organisation.
On the assumption that the status quo expressed by Rule C.2.9 survives critical examination of its merits, we then need to think about whether or not the election of a General Secretary is, like the election of our National Executive Council, something from which those members who are UNISON employees should be excluded in future – or whether it is, like a political fund ballot, a part of our trade union democracy in which our employees should be included.
I incline towards the former point of view, but I certainly think that it is unacceptable that our Rule Book is silent on the question of whether or not staff, who are UNISON members, should have a vote in the election of their own boss.
Now that the hearing of evidence in front of the Assistant Certification Officer is over and the complainants and the Union are waiting for Wednesday 22 February when we shall reconvene to make our closing arguments in relation to the complaints concerning last year’s election for General Secretary it is time to begin thinking further about the future of our trade union.
I don’t intend to go into the evidence which was heard this week, or the arguments which will be put next year. The time for that will be once the Assistant Certification Officer has issued her decision.
However, there are questions which UNISON members need in any case to be thinking about, not least as elections to our National Executive Council come round and the deadline for submissions to next year’s National Delegate Conference looms.
One question which popped into my mind this week was whether we really need to have a General Secretary at all. Our Rule Book (Rule E.3) says that we must – but the law only says that if you have a general secretary they have to be elected by the membership (unless they hold office for less than thirteen months).
Branch-level elected positions in the trade union can be job-shared in accordance with Rule G.4.1.5 but our Rules say we must have one – and only one – General Secretary. This certainly entrenches hierarchy at the top of our organisation and I cannot see why it should be essential for a trade union governed by an elected lay Executive to have such a hierarchy of paid staff.
In principle there is no reason why we could not have a senior official responsible for (say) publicity, responsible to a lay communications committee, a senior official responsible for organising, responsible to a lay organising committee and so on. Unity and coordination could be provided by the elected lay National Executive Council (NEC), rather than by a secretariat of paid employees.
Certainly it is the existence of this secretariat which raises the question of how to design, improve and strengthen democratic checks and balances (which are at present seriously inadequate). In the early years of UNISON the Presidential Team (a phrase which does not in fact appear in the Rule Book) was developed by lay members of the National Executive in order to provide lay oversight and scrutiny of senior officials, but in my time on the NEC I have rarely noticed it performing this function.
Realistically I suppose it is this latter question (how to improve democratic safeguards and lay scrutiny) we need to think about, but in doing so, it is at least worth bearing in mind that we don’t necessarily have to have a General Secretary, and that if we are going to keep the role in future we should be certain that the position adds value and effectiveness to our organising.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Three days of hearing evidence before the Assistant Certification Officer in central London are over - but we are now looking for dates in February for the parties to make their closing submissions.
It will be some time after that before we know the outcome. The hearing has, however, brought various matters into the public domain.
I may not restrain the urge to comment further.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Your blogger, as someone who was a student of local government even before I was an employee, can do no better than recommend this free essay in the London Review of Books on “the Strange Death of Municipal England”.
Seriously, go and read that now. Even if you don’t come back here.
Before starting work in local government thirty years ago, I knew that in successive struggles in the twentieth century socialists in English local government had fought to defend a model of autonomous, redistributive and adequately resourced municipal government.
In Poplar in the 1920s and Clay Cross in the 1970s, Labour Councillors defied unjust laws rather than abandon the interests of their working class electorate – and in the 1980s Thatcher fought the “enemy within” in local government with quite as much determination as she fought the trade unions.
The abolition of the Greater London Council and the (less lamented) Metropolitan County Councils in 1986 have arguably been more significant in the long term than ratecapping, although it is that struggle, particularly in Liverpool and Lambeth, which is better remembered - both by those of us who celebrate that defiance and by those who have built entire lives running away from it.
At the time what was significant about the defeat of the poll tax was the end of Thatcher – but a generation on we can also see that the replacement Council Tax has helped to facilitate the continuing decline of the autonomy and legitimacy of local government.
As the last Peace and Nuclear Affairs Officer of the (nuclear free zone) London Borough of Lambeth your blogger is an authentic relic of the 1980s “loony left” – and as the last Branch Secretary of the Lambeth Branch of the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) also a relic of a time when the organisations of the local government workforce defended local government.
Because alongside the tragedy of the death of municipal England is the role of the trade unions representing the local government workforce in providing little more than well informed commentary.
The largest collective bargaining unit in the economy is the local government workforce in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (since Scotland broke away). This enormous chunk of the trade unionised working class is organised largely in the three largest trade unions – who between themselves have half the membership of the TUC.
Yet neither our trade unions nor our trade union movement as a whole have prioritised the defence of local government over the past generation. This failure has reached its culmination in the period since 2010. During the Coalition Government, local Councils shed a fifth of their workforce, and the remaining four fifths lost a fifth of their real income.
So, perhaps if we want better to comprehend the “strange death of municipal England” we need also to consider the state of local government trade unionism.
Of which more later.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
I have kept to the promise I made not to provide a running commentary on preparations for next week’s hearing in front of the (Assistant) Certification Officer of complaints made in connection with the election for UNISON General Secretary last year. Being in possession of some three thousand pages of documents and statements in a total (now) of ten large files, I shall of course have a fair bit more to say soon – and not all of it as a pantomime.
I have certainly learnt things from the preparation of this hearing which I would not have learnt had I relied upon being given straightforward answers to questions as a mere member of the ruling body of the trade union. Whatever the outcome of the hearing, we must and will ensure that UNISON members have the opportunity to become familiar with every detail of what went on in the course of the election, so that members can make our own judgement about our own trade union.
What I see now is what I have known for years, with greater understanding as each of the thirteen years I have already served on the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON has passed – UNISON is a top-down, hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation directed by a small number of senior officials in conjunction with a few leading members of the Executive (though the role of the lay part of this partnership is strictly subaltern).
There are some on the left who might, historically, have said “so what?” to this observation and, whilst I am something of a troublesome ultra-democrat (with incipient anarcho-syndicalist tendencies), I could see the argument that we ought not to trouble ourselves too much if our trade union was less democratic than we might wish if it were delivering for our members.
The history of the period since 2010 in particular is a history of UNISON “battening down the hatches” in order to try to ride out a storm which shows no sign of abating. In the service of this strategy we abandoned prematurely the fight to defend public service pensions in 2012 and subsequently failed time and again to smash the pay freeze which has driven down the living standards of those of our members whose jobs we have been able to defend.
Therefore, in order to protect the continued existence of our trade union as an institution, we have deliberately refrained from supporting assertively the interests of our members. Our members have responded to this strategy as one might expect, with declining participation and interest in our union, as it delivers less for them.
From within the organisation this truth cannot be acknowledged, as a culture in which criticism is seen as disloyalty has risen over the years. Each success is applauded. Each failure is ignored. Critics are condemned or humiliated.
The combination of undemocratic, “top down” bureaucratic control with ineffective performance in collective bargaining is toxic for the future of UNISON. Ultimately, the most energetic commitment to organising cannot keep such an organisation growing in such a cold climate.
Therefore we need change.
Members need the new UNISONAction Broad Left – and activists need to show discipline and humility to build the coalition which is emerging to change our trade union.
We need candidates in every seat in the forthcoming elections to our National Executive Council (NEC) who are committed to change – and we need one such candidate for each seat.
Now is not the time for timidity. Nor is it the time for ego.
I do not regret my decision to stand down from our NEC. I am allowed to have a life, and now that I have the opportunity of happiness I intend to take it.
I will miss the opportunity of being part of a larger left on the NEC, seriously trying to reverse the decline of UNISON – but I will miss it far less if the seat I currently occupy is filled by Sean Fox, Secretary of the Haringey branch and representative of London on the National Joint Council Committee, who has the experience and judgement to do the job we need to be done.
Monday, December 12, 2016
A spectre is haunting a large building on the Euston Road.
Well, given the season, three spectres maybe. Each, in turn, is troubling the slumber of those who sleep there.
First, there is the ghost of elections past, a spectre who reminds the sleeping souls of where UNISON was before the 2010 General Election (when we had considerably more members than we have now – and had not failed to defend public service pensions nor failed to smash the pay freeze). Perhaps this spirit makes those who dream of it reflect upon who they once were and what they might have hoped to achieve?
Then there is the ghost of elections (recently) present – a jovial spirit inviting people to watch what people have been getting up to in the recent here and now – and remarking perhaps on other related current events. It may be that this ghost causes dreamers, on awakening to consider what they are doing now?
Finally however, there is the most frightening spectre, a silent and unspeaking shade – the ghost of elections yet to come.
Will the visits of these spirits be enough for the somnambulists of the Great White Elephant to change their ways?
Monday, December 05, 2016
The small crowd outside the Supreme Court this lunchtime included a small number of knuckle-dragging fascists, some adherents of the little-known school of thought which holds that Boris Johnson was sent to us by Christ (one of whom was dressed, inexplicably, as a leprechaun) and a range of other oddities (including a disgruntled former taxi driver from Crawley).
The only organised left-wing group was the Movement for Justice, who have correctly identified that "Brexit" is racist and should be opposed. For the first time in my life I held a placard from the MfJ - because they were the only people there defending the values of socialism and democracy.
Are the left content to allow the far right to hold the space outside the Supreme Court - or will other socialists be there later this week?
The only organised left-wing group was the Movement for Justice, who have correctly identified that "Brexit" is racist and should be opposed. For the first time in my life I held a placard from the MfJ - because they were the only people there defending the values of socialism and democracy.
Are the left content to allow the far right to hold the space outside the Supreme Court - or will other socialists be there later this week?
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Some friends have asked me, knowing that I am subject to obviously unjustified disciplinary action by my own trade union in retaliation for my having made a legitimate complaint to the Certification Officer concerning proven malpractice in a recent internal UNISON election, whether my decision to stand down from our National Executive Council shows that “the bastards have got to me.”
I can assure you that this is not the case. I can also assure all readers that I do know a bit about the relevant law.
I chose when to become a Branch Secretary and shall now (for the third time) choose when not to be. I joined our National Executive at a time of my choosing and shall now leave at a time of my choosing (and shall support Sean Fox of the Haringey branch to stand in my place because he is far and away the best candidate).
I remain completely committed to the transformation of UNISON into the trade union which we wanted it to be when we voted it into existence in 1992 – and to that end am pleased to publish the following information received today from Glen Williams on behalf of the new UNISONaction Broad Left;
UNISONaction broad left Meetings have taken place across the UK and it is very clear that there is a growing determination amongst our activists to raise the profile and activity of our union.
UNISONaction operate a total transparency policy and so please find below the details of the lead coordinators for the UNISON Regions who are getting organised with further regional details to follow. If you want to find out what is happening in your Region and where UNISONaction is up to please email the Regional Lead identified below. If your Region is not represented yet please feel free to email Glen Williams (see below).
Yorks and Humberside Region – Ade Kennett and Vicky Perrin - email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
West Midlands - Dave Augers - email@example.com
East Midlands –Gary Freeman - firstname.lastname@example.org
South East – Paul Couchman - email@example.com 07834468135
South West – Berny Parkes - firstname.lastname@example.org
North West - Glen Williams - email@example.com
Greater London - Hugo Pierre and John Mcloughlin- firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Northern Region - Paul Gilroy - firstname.lastname@example.org –
Cymru/Wales – Mark Evans - email@example.com
I encourage all UNISON members to engage in organising to make our trade union into what it could (and ought to) be. Lay UNISON activists need to stand up for lay control of our trade union.
There are some funny people in the labour movement.
But not all are amusing.
One weird bunch who were in favour of voting alongside UKIP in June’s referendum (and are now celebrating the victory of reaction and demanding action) have had some influence in UNISON’s Greater London Regional Office in recent years. No lay activists openly associate with this organisation but it appears that some paid employees of our trade union share its rather odd views.
These, generally anonymous infiltrators into our movement believe that it is “a decade of intense migration with approaching a million from the new European Union states coming to look for work in Britain” rather than a decade of Government failing to invest in our public services that “has had a debilitating effect on schools, housing and medical services.” This faulty analysis would embarrass a student of GCSE politics (never mind a student of Marx), but is commonplace amongst people who describe themselves as “Communist” (!)
It is not therefore a surprise, given their inability to comprehend the world around them that these so-called Marxists conclude that since “mass migration provides a potentially limitless reserve army of the unemployed to undermine workers’ organisation, pay and conditions built up over centuries by the working class here” it is therefore important that “our resistance to this begins with the fight to leave the EU.” It is shameful that anonymous labour movement functionaries who try to associate their politics with Fidel Castro, a true hero of our class, should peddle such nationalist and racist nonsense.
This blog has from time to time made observations about the (and honestly this is not a joke name) Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) which is now little more than an apolitical freemasonry of the labour movement bureaucracy (with a sideline in reactionary British nationalism).
Of course there are risks in making enemies...
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) will be glad to get back to the niche concerns which normally catch the attention of your blogger.
So here is the news that the Certification Officer has ordered the rerun of the General Secretary election!
In the case of URTU – the United Road Transport Union.
It is interesting to read of a trade union in which an attempt was made to ban paid officials from standing for the position of General Secretary.
And worth noting that the Certification Officer can exercise their power to order a rerun of an election (as they have in a recent case involving UNITE, albeit in that case the Union conceded the breach of their rules).
Monday, November 28, 2016
When, two days ago, I wrote for the first time from “Weimar Little England” I did not realise that I was being anachronistic because we had already opened hostilities with the Poles. The random deportations of European migrants for allegedly sleeping rough joins the recent mass deportation to Jamaica to reveal to us the society in which we have been living for some time.
The official racism which legitimates, but never satisfies, right-wing populism is as happy scapegoating white “foreigners” as black (perhaps nearly as happy?) Bigotry is simple and straightforward (and all too common). For socialists trying to work out how to respond to these darkening days these are, however, confusing times.
I know that there would be great value in a united response to the resurgent forces of reaction and the far right (and I am inclined to be present outside the Supreme Court on Monday even if it is true that Farage has called off his attempt to be Mussolini).
However. I am confronted by some questions, of which these are three;
How can we unite with those who campaigned (whether they are comfortable to acknowledge it or not) alongside the populist and far right in favour of a vote to leave the European Union which, by the time it was cast, was a vote against immigration?
How do we engage, as anti-racists and anti-imperialists, with those whose first response to the death this weekend of Fidel Castro was to echo ill-informed criticisms rather than acknowledge achievements?
How do we work with those cowards and careerists are misleading the “Momentum” organisation having engaged in a blatantly racist witch-hunt of their own Vice-Chair as part of a craven capitulation to Zionism (never mind the Labour right-wing to whom they gave ground)?
I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know that we will not succeed on the basis of simply ignoring these divisions. As urgent as is the task of uniting against our adversaries an even more urgent task is to understand what we face and to respond on the basis of principles.
We must start from a position of socialist internationalism, of unyielding support for equality and opposition to racism and imperialism. These principles we cannot compromise if we are to be useful in dealing with the rising tide of racism and reaction nationally and globally.
I shall keep thinking about what this means in practice.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Yesterday, whilst I was mostly thinking parochially, the rest of the world was marking the passing of Fidel Castro.
It is no surprise that the Western media would generally focus on denigrating a great revolutionary, nor that they would focus upon the minority of Cubans living in exile, many of whom appear to prefer Trump to Castro.
What is also not surprising, but perhaps more disappointing, is the response of many who consider themselves to be part of “the left”, at least here in the UK.
Even on the day that we learned of Castro’s death, many people had to qualify any comment by remembering the things that they (from their sofa in Islington) disagreed with Castro about.
I suppose I have been shedding illusions in “Trotskyism” ever since the fall of the wall, but petty sniping at the track record of Socialist Cuba at this time forces me to conclude that I am no part of that “left”.
That is not to say that I, or anyone, should be starry-eyed about Castro, or any leader. The last thing the left needs, as should be increasingly obvious, is fan-clubs.
However, politics is very often about choosing sides – and if we are going to defeat the forces of reaction who are now rampant in Europe and the United States we have to be as clear and straightforward as our opponents.
It is a strength which the socialist left has inherited from liberalism that we are critical and questioning – but it can be a terrible weakness when we put these valuable traits to the fore at all times, when sometimes we need to be firm in support of our side.
Yesterday, elements of the Western left exhibited also the Euro-centrism which very much gets in the way of “thinking globally” whilst “acting locally”.
Criticism of historic errors by Cuba in dealing with the rights of LGBT people should be part of a balanced and comprehensive assessment of the Cuban revolution, as should commentary upon authoritarian tendencies common to post-revolutionary regimes.
It is however, risible, for UK leftists to put such criticism front and centre of brief responses to the death of a great revolutionary leader, whilst seemingly ignoring the role of our own country in exporting official homophobia to the Caribbean (where surely other islands closer to “our” influence have more questions to answer?)
Those who consider themselves socialists, but who are so very wise that their understanding of the dangers of “campism” means that they qualify and nuance every word when asked to choose between two sides demonstrate the weakness which is likely to lead to our defeat by the coming rightwing tide.
That they also allow their great wisdom to obscure a truly global assessment of a revolutionary leader who gave so much to Africa and the Caribbean suggests that elements of the European “left” will contribute their share of responsibility for what our continent (and its transatlantic diaspora) may once more be about to unleash upon humanity.
I don’t want to contribute in any way to dividing the opponents of the rampaging resurgent right, but I don’t think we can build unity on shifting sands.
I don’t know what to do – but I am at least thinking about this without false certainty.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
I spent some time yesterday arguing with two old friends who will not I hope be offended if I say we disagreed because I felt they were in denial about aspects of the current political situation whereas they felt that I (and a like-minded comrade) were exaggerating.
Regular readers of this blog may not be sure they agree, but I used to be someone who was particularly prone to measured and cautious expressions of opinion as I tried to persuade interlocutors. I genuinely was not given to exaggeration – before this year I would sarcastically have dismissed someone saying that democracy is at serious and immediate risk in the advanced capitalist nations (albeit it had been massively weakened by the growing power of corporations against states).
I think that 2016 has shown all of us that we were wrong. I know I was. I did not foresee that a combination of bigotry and stupidity would lead to a vote to leave the European Union, nor that a similarly toxic mix across the Atlantic would bring to power a dangerous demagogue. I fear I will not be surprised now if Austria elects a fascist President, nor even if France falls.
It is not at all an overreaction to the events of this year to foresee nuclear war in Europe, nor to consider the likelihood that real tyranny will triumph in the USA. I quite understand that it is more comfortable to deny this, to insist that things are not really so bad and that former friends who backed Brexit cannot be responsible for the consequence of the racism and bigotry of their co-thinkers on that question.
It is understandable but it is wrong. It is that bad – and those who choose the wrong side on vital questions at a dangerous time cannot escape responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
As we were having that argument a wise person was asking pertinent questions; “You know films set in the 1930s when everyone is pottering on as normal and you want to shout at the screen? Well, how would you know if you were in one?”
The answer has to be that you wouldn’t, but that if you even think you might be you have to be consistent and brave in standing up, in every part of your life, for what you believe in. I never knew my maternal grandfather (who died of TB in the 50s) but I know he was a mild mannered man – yet in the late 30s he concluded an argument with a visiting German Nazi by pouring a bucket of water over him.
The vermin of UKIP and the American “alt-right” won’t play by any rules in arguing against the beliefs of all democrats and trying to undermine all in which we believe. Our only rule in response has to be that we won’t surrender to them. There is no legitimacy in the referendum result any more than there is legitimacy in the election of “President” Trump.
And then today we woke to the loss of Castro.
It is as if events conspire to remind us that the chapter opened by the October revolution is now definitively closed. There is no global alternative to capitalism.
Capital no longer needs to fend off a threat from a combative working class with social welfare, civil liberty and democratic rights.
We must hope that the passing of the great revolutionary does not destabilise Cuba. That one island can stand for more than half a century against US imperialism will always be an inspiration to those who believe in progress whatever happens next, but it will be a further setback if the Cuban revolution is defeated.
Socialist Cuba has given so much to the world, and in particular to the peoples of Africa and the Caribbean (who have often borne the brunt of global capitalism). We must continue to be inspired by this example and draw courage from the example of the Cuban people, as from the example of all previous revolutions.
As socialists we must remember our responsibility both to our class and to the future of humanity. It may well be that the choice between “socialism and barbarism” is being made around us in a way we would not support, but this question is not settled. We have the power to change the world.
If we know that we are indeed characters in a film set in “Weimar Little England” we have to stand up now, and every day, to resist bigotry and prejudice, to defend those under attack and to protect the values of democracy and socialism.
We may not win but at least we must fight.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
I can’t quite believe the content of an email which I have just received from our General Secretary at just after 5pm this afternoon;
It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the sudden and tragic death of our friend and president, Eric Roberts.
Eric passed away earlier this afternoon having been diagnosed with cancer earlier this week. The news has come as a great shock to us all, but at this sad time our thoughts and our love are with his family.
I am updating this post on 25 November to include this link to the UNISON website where you can read and post tributes to Eric.
Eric was not a close friend. Indeed he and I often found ourselves on opposing sides of arguments within our trade union. I would not do the injustice to his memory of failing to note this.
Eric was, however, a great trade unionist with a passionate commitment to our movement and its cause.
I saw this at its very best a couple of years ago when Eric gave a funny, caring and passionate farewell to another trade unionist for whom I also had rather more respect than affection, and of whom I said, as I shall say now of Eric, that he was literally irreplaceable.
Ave atque vale.
As far as I can recollect, no one has ever asked me to blog about the history of hearings in front of the Certification Officer involving UNISON.
But I knew you wanted me to anyway.
So as I get time I’ll remind you of some aspects of the past of our trade union which are all too easily forgotten.
One of the earliest cases involving UNISON was one in which our trade union (or at least its leadership) seemed almost to welcome intervention in its affairs. Nineteen years ago, the Certification Officer ruled that a donation of £100 made by a UNISON branch to an appeal in support of the Socialist Worker newspaper had breached the Union’s political fund rules.
Although by the time the complaint came to be considered the contested donation had been repaid, and therefore there was no need for any enforcement order, the Certification Officer did not simply make a declaration that the political fund rules had been breached but also came to an agreement with UNISON that this declaration would be publicised by the trade union. And so it was.
The publication of this decision within UNISON signalled the start of a sustained attempt to marginalise – and in some cases expel – activists who were associated with the Socialist Workers Party. At the same time the Birmingham and Sheffield local government branches were taken over (into what we would now call “regional supervision” but without consultation with Regional lay structures) and there were a number of contested disciplinary cases – at least one of which found UNISON being told to reverse a decision by the Certification Officer.
That disciplinary witch hunt came to an end with the election of a new General Secretary, who took office for the first time in January 2001, although its consequences continued to be felt for some time. Over the subsequent period UNISON’s National Executive sought, through our Development and Organisation Committee, to impose greater lay scrutiny of some areas of internal controversy, with regular reporting both of branches under regional supervision and cases taken to the Certification Officer.
Funnily enough, when, some years later, the Certification Officer found that much larger sums (£2,184.41 in total) had been spent in breach of the same political fund rules as had been breached to a much lesser extent in the earlier case, the union did not volunteer to publicise the decision as they had in 1997. Indeed no subsequent Certification Officer decision has ever attracted quite the welcome of that long ago decision about £100 being sent to the Socialist Worker appeal.
Monday, November 21, 2016
Having told my branch that I won’t be seeking re-election as Branch Secretary in January, with a view to having a bit more of a life, I realise that tomorrow morning I will attend my last meeting of UNISON’s Regional Local Government Committee after more than twenty years.
More than nineteen years ago, I was in the pub after a meeting of the Executive of this august body when I got the phone call that told me I was about to become a father, so I think of the Regional Local Government Committee as almost family (and certainly the relatives with whom I would prefer to spend time when compared with the in-laws of the Regional Committee, at least over the past decade).
UNISON’s local government membership is by far the largest part of our trade union both nationally and regionally, and I have gained an appreciation of both the strengths and weaknesses of our organisation across London over the past two decades and more (and have probably contributed at least as much to the latter as the former).
UNISON was something of a difficult coming together of the traditions of two of our “former partner unions” in Greater London local government. In the mid 1990s we would meet as an Executive in the Conference chamber at Mabledon Place with former NUPE colleagues on one side of the room and former NALGO colleagues on the other. After a while the “NUPE” pre-meetings no longer included any paid officials...
London local government was something of a centre of opposition, on the part of former NUPE branch secretaries, to the process of branch merger. As Chair of the Regional Recruitment and Organisation Committee in 1997 I secured a three month extension of the deadline for branch mergers in the Region – and we came to agreements locally in all but three London boroughs (although not before a walk-out of former NUPE branch secretaries greeted my report to the Regional Council).
Ironically Lambeth was the one place where branch merger never really happened, because UNISON created a separate branch for the members privatised to a joint venture company early that year, taking the great bulk of the former NUPE membership away from the “merged” Lambeth branch.
The Regional officials who ensured for many years that any mention of bringing the two Lambeth branches together was hastily squashed deserve my personal thanks for saving me from the work which would then have come my way – and can no doubt congratulate themselves on having assisted the Lambeth branch to play the very particular role it has played in UNISON over the past twenty years. (I won’t name names to save blushes – and also to avoid being hauled up on any more disciplinary investigations...)
Elsewhere in London though UNISON branches developed as we had hoped they might when we voted for merger in 1992 – particularly in those boroughs where some at least of the manual workforce remained in-house.
Effective partnership working between lay leadership and officials who respected lay control also meant that we resolved the contradiction between the goal of single status and the differential London weighting payments between manual and non-manual workers. It was a shame that individuals moved on and that productive partnership came to an end.
Equally unfortunately our subsequent campaign to increase London Weighting, for which we took strike action in 2002-03 not only failed to achieve our objective but led to the employers walking out of the London-level bargaining machinery, collapsing a joint body which had survived the interregnum in national bargaining before the second world war.
We learned that the uneven organisation and militancy of our membership between London boroughs amounted to an all but insurmountable obstacle in prosecuting a London-wide dispute. The national disputes in which we have been involved over the past decade or so have been equally discouraging. Twice we have settled for reductions in pension benefits, and repeatedly we have failed to defeat pay restraint imposed upon us by the Government and employers.
In many of our London branches UNISON activists have been fighting a vigorous rearguard action for as long as many of us can remember, to protect jobs and conditions of service from repeated attacks.
Over the past ten years our attempts to support each other have generally achieved any success in spite of, rather than because of, the resources of our trade union at regional level. Perhaps the most extreme example of the unhelpfulness of the official structures of the union was the deliberate damage done to the Greenwich branch when it was unjustifiably taken into regional supervision back in 2010.
The elected officers of our Regional Service Group Committee have done what they can to try to assert basic norms of democratic accountability, but it has been an uphill struggle. I have watched too many good activists worn down by the endless battles with both employers on the one hand and officials on the other, and have seen previously independent branches become obedient to those who ought not to control our lay led trade union.
Thankfully there are still sufficient London borough UNISON branches under the control of assertive lay leaders who know what a trade union is for, and with the Secretaries of two such branches as Chair and Vice-Chair of the Greater London Regional Local Government Committee we can continue to hope that UNISON may yet become something of the trade union we voted for in 1992.
It has been a privilege to attend meetings of our Regional Local Government Committee on many occasions since vesting day and to have worked alongside those principled and committed individuals who have chosen to devote themselves voluntarily to the cause of our members without ambition or hope of personal gain.
Others have sometimes also been present.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
I have supported the Shadow Chancellor as a comrade for many years, but I could not disagree more with his risible claim that Labour should be more positive about “Brexit.”
Positive about the threat of deporation hanging over the head of millions of fellow workers?
Positive about the threat to our already pitiable legal rights as workers in this country?
Positive about the unleashing of reaction since the victory of the far right in the referendum?
I’m sorry but I won’t be positive about any of these things.
I won’t give up in the face of the reactionary outcome of the advisory referendum on membership of the EU any more than socialists have ever given up in the face of the election of Tory (or New Labour) Governments.
I do accept that not everyone who voted to leave the EU was a racist.
Socialists should fight for open borders, workers’ rights and the defence of minorities.
That means opposing “Brexit”.
Which is how to be on the side of our class.
It was good to catch up with old friends and colleagues today at the UNISON Centre (a.k.a. “the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road”) for a meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC). It’s always good to catch up, and to see people I haven’t seen for a while.
I’ll blog a full report when I can find some time away from both branch work and self-inflicted labour. However, I do want to pass comment on some interesting contributions to discussion (in the context of debate about our organisation in schools) arising from the potential merger between the NUT and ATL unions.
This step towards professional unity in the most highly unionised large occupational group in the economy is arguably a belated response to the “millennium challenge” set to our movement by the TUC before the turn of the century, which did not generate the positive changes in the structure of our movement which it sought.
It is a shame that, given the current structure of our trade union movement, and the fact that (without national recognition to negotiate for non-teaching staff in schools where those staff are covered by the National Joint Council) the ATL organise teaching assistants, the move to bring together unionised teachers appears as a threat to UNISON, currently fighting for teaching assistants in Derby and Durham.
It is ironic that the position of the three support staff unions in schools (UNISON, GMB and UNITE), which is that the teaching unions ought not to try to recruit non-teaching staff in schools, is the exact opposite of our approach in the rest of local government (where, since adopting single status in 1997, we advocate vertically integrated trade unions organising all grades).
However, we are where we are. Trade unionists in our public services are organised in professional (or occupationally specific) unions (such as the teaching unions, NAPO, the FBU, the POA and some of the health unions), general unions (GMB and UNITE), an industrial union for the civil service (PCS) and – most importantly – in our strange hybrid trade union, which clearly aspires to be an industrial union in local government, health and higher education but (as some Committee members have conceded in recent discussions) is evolving in the direction of a general union.
There are very few public servants for whom there is only one obvious trade union to join (a firefighter perhaps). For most of us there are two or more trade unions who would happily take our subscriptions. Since it is much easier to recruit to a trade union someone who has already been persuaded of the benefits of trade unionism, this sets our public services up for an endless cycle of poaching of members between our unions.
In another part of our discussions today we touched upon the occasionally aggressive poaching of UNISON members by the GMB at local level – and were reminded that attempts to develop a protocol to encourage cooperation between the two unions was knocked back some years ago. The often difficult, and yet important, relationship between UNISON and GMB has been a feature of my years as a branch activist and on our NEC. The most likely future of this relationship is, regrettably, that cordial relations at national level will be accompanied by backbiting and mutual poaching locally. To change this would require leadership which neither union currently appears to possess.
Another trade union with which UNISON has had a difficult relationship during my time on the NEC in spite of the obvious potential for cooperation has been PCS. UNISON and PCS had signed an agreement to work together in 2010 but five years later PCS were complaining to the TUC about UNISON trying to encroach upon their areas of organisation. There is less direct competition for members between us and obvious possibilities for joint work between the civil service and other public services, but UNISON’s evident hostility has in the past driven PCS towards the possibility of a merger with far less industrial logic.
Overall trade union density has fallen over the past twenty years from a third to a quarter of all workers in the economy – even in the public sector almost half of workers are not trade unionists. What workers (whether or not yet in a trade union) need from our movement is a serious attempt to organise the unorganised – not a movement that is squabbling over the already organised minority.
We might look to the TUC to provide some unity- but the TUC has historically been weak in relation to individual trade unions and, as there are fewer, larger unions so this relative weakness becomes more pronounced. The best chance for our movement to make a unified attempt to organise (rather than a competitive attempt to avoid bankruptcy) would be if the leadership of UNISON could lead that unified attempt.
This was surely what we had in mind when we created a new public service union from the former partner unions (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE) back in 1993. We thought we could overcome one of the greatest rivalries in our movement (between NALGO and NUPE in local government) – although perhaps all we did was internalise it (as a struggle between democrats and control freaks).
At any event we did not think that we had finished the job of uniting public service workers on 1 July 1993 and yet we have hardly taken a step further.
Even the most enthusiastic (if anonymous) well-wisher on our union’s twentieth birthday could say nothing more positive than “steady as she goes”. This was not something to celebrate in circumstances in which we needed (as we still need) imaginative leadership committed to changing to meet the challenges of our future.
Trade union merger is not necessarily a positive step in meeting those challenges (many mergers appear purely defensive and financially driven) - although mergers which strengthen the organisational capacity of workers to resist employers have played and could in future play a positive role.
We may need to look closely at other means of cooperation between trade unions (such as the shared legal service between the GMB and CWU) as options for a future in which we can put such cooperation ahead of competition.
Instead of responding to the prospect of professional unity for the teaching profession by circling our wagons with “competitor” support staff unions and the recalcitrant teaching union we could then be approaching the teachers with a plan for effective cooperation between trade unions across the education sector (and all public services).
Our movement deserves a leadership which can address the challenges we face. UNISON in particular cannot continue in stasis.