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

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

UNISON NEC elections - a view from the outside

Although it is now almost two years since I stood down from the last of my elected positions within UNISON, I remain (of course) a member (all workers should be trade union members), encouraged by the news that trade union membership increased last year. If a socialist Labour Government is going to stand any chance of success we will need to be able to mobilise working class people in support of that Government – and the trade unions are the most significant and effective means we have of mobilising our class.

This means that the leadership of our trade unions is an important question, and therefore I was interested to see the summary results of the latest biennial elections to UNISON’s National Executive Council (on which I served seven terms from 2003 to 2017). These were the first elections fought under recent amendments to the election procedures which sought to prohibit groups of UNISON members from getting together to support candidates in the elections.

This was obviously a response to the outcome of elections two years ago, which saw a contest between “Stronger UNISON” candidates supportive of the current UNISON establishment (who took 31 seats) and “UNISON Action Broad Left” candidates (29 of whom were successful). That election had been the first time that supporters of the status quo within the Union had organised openly, and plainly they didn’t much enjoy the experience. “Stronger UNISON” has morphed (on Facebook) into “UNISON Unity” which makes great play of not being a “faction”.

(Students of the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union will understand something of the political origins of some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the status quo in the Union from the fervour with which “factions” are denounced).

UNISON Action Broad Left, the most recent attempt to unite the disparate forces of the “organised” left within the Union, was clearly in the sights of those who succeeded in changing the election procedures which had served perfectly well for twenty five years without the need for draconian restrictions on organising support for candidates in elections – there were not, this time, candidates of UNISON Action Broad Left any more than there were “Stronger UNISON” candidates.

Those in the Union who were most concerned to see positive and democratic change nevertheless promoted a slate of 41 candidates, 27 of whom have been elected. This slate included left-wing Labour Party members, and also members of other political organisations (the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party for example). From my years of experience in UNISON I understand the need to organise those who want to see change in a bureaucratically dominated organisation, and I am really pleased to see the re-election of a number of those candidates, who were friends and comrades in my time on the NEC.

I was very sorry that my successor on the NEC, Sean Fox, was not re-elected in the Greater London Region, as I was to see that my friend and comrade, Sonya Howard was defeated. The reality is clearly that there is limited political space between those who want to keep things as they are and those who want change in UNISON.

23 (more than a third) of the NEC members were elected unopposed – none of whom were from the slate of 41. Were it not for “factional” organising from the left the state of UNISON democracy would be even less healthy than it is.

Supporters of the status quo will no doubt continue to organise as a faction on the NEC as they did throughout my seven terms, even as they denounce the very idea of factions within the Union in public. Over the years I would occasionally get reports from secret meetings attended (sometimes) by a large majority of the NEC. Once I sat next to a newly elected member who shared with me their disappointment that their name had not been put forward for the Labour Link Committee (because a caucus which did not exist had decided that it should not be).

Trade union activists will always organise alongside likeminded colleagues. There isn’t a problem with “factions” in UNISON, and it is profoundly disingenuous that those who maintain that there is are invariably those who have organised factionally in secret at the highest level of the Union for many years.

Perhaps now the Union could deal with the real problem of how to ensure that there is never a repeat of the disgraceful conduct of the former Greater London Regional Secretary in the last General Secretary election – perhaps even responding meaningfully to the recommendations from the Assistant Certification Officer?

There will be another General Secretary election before the next biennial election to the NEC and it would shame the Union if it did not have a reasoned response to those recommendations before that election takes place.

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