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, July 28, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - under starters orders

Although the nomination period for UNISON General Secretary does not open until 10 August, various candidates are emerging. Although I have been told on social media that I have already made my mind up whom I am supporting, I am taking a little time, and have therefore been looking at these candidates as they emerge.

 

In this post I will just identify who the potential and actual candidates currently seem to be, I won’t express any opinions of my own. I know all of the candidates more or less well from my time as a UNISON activist and would consider more than one of them friends and comrades.

 

The most senior officials in UNISON, below the General Secretary, are the Assistant General Secretaries (of which, for the past decade, we have had five) (we used to have a position of Deputy General Secretary – but no more).

 

Two of UNISON’s Assistant General Secretaries are in the running (in alphabetical order of surname) – Christina McAnea, who has been responsible for Service Groups (and therefore has had overall responsibility for negotiations with employers) and Roger McKenzie, who has longer experience at this level, and has been responsible for organisational issues. A third UNISON (paid) official has also thrown her hat into the ring – Margaret Greer, National Black Members’ Officer.

 

Those wanting to assess who might be the “continuity candidate” standing with the support of the largest part of what might be called the “UNISON establishment” might observe the support for Christina McAnea expressed (on Facebook) by past Presidents Chris Tansley and Gordon McKay and the coincidence that – on the same day that UNISON announced that Dave Prentis was standing down, the very next media release from the Union quoted Christina.

 

A search for Christina’s name on the UNISON website throws up, on the first page of results, 11 news stories or press releases from 2020, whereas a similar search for the name “Roger McKenzie” throws up two references to a webinar this month before getting on to other people called Roger – or (in the case of the third item thrown up by the search) “Rogers”. There are other references to Roger and, of course, the extent to which UNISON might “showcase” one or other of its officials in its official publicity will depend very much upon the nature of their duties (whether they are “public-facing” or more focused on organising the trade union itself).

 

However, as a long-serving former member of our National Executive Council (NEC), and therefore as adept as anyone at the application of what used to be called “Kremlinology” to the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road, I think it is clear that we can anticipate that the bulk of the survivors from what was once known as “Team Dave” will be rallying to Christina’s campaign, whereas Roger’s support base comes from some of those who sat out the last General Secretary election campaign, some of those who supported Dave Prentis, and some of those who did not.

 

As to the position of potential “rank and file” challengers, the Socialist Party are already promoting the desire of NEC member Hugo Pierre to “the candidate of the left”. However, hustings are due to take place and NEC members Paul Holmes and Karen Reissmann are also both in the running at this stage. Diligent readers of this blog will recall that the rank and file left (of which I have always been a part) has never managed to stand fewer than two candidates for General Secretary (with your humble blogger keeping the numbers up back in 2004/5).

 

Given that the election has always taken place on the basis of what UNISON rules call a “simple majority” (which is actually a plurality, since there is no guarantee that the winning candidate will win with a majority of the votes cast, indeed they did not in 1995, nor again in 2015) having a multiplicity of candidates standing for change might be considered (particularly with the benefit of a quarter century of hindsight) a pretty good way of avoiding such change.

 

Incidentally, it is probably relevant to observe that being suspended by UNISON is no formal impediment to being a candidate for election within the Union. Back in 2009, the Employment Appeals Tribunal found that UNISON had been wrong to disqualify Tony Staunton from standing as a candidate for election because, at that point, he was suspended from holding office.

 

It is a crying shame that UNISON once again refuses to use the discretion given to the NEC by the Rule Book to use a preferential voting system since this would not only guarantee that the eventual victor did command majority support (or, at least, did not face majority opposition) and it would have been a voting system more likely to encourage a positive approach to other candidates (whose voters would need to be courted for their second, or subsequent, preferences). I should probably never blog again in support of preferential voting in UNISON as that obviously doesn’t help.

 

I shall be back here after the hustings and shall make my mind up.

Monday, July 27, 2020

UNISON publishes election procedures for General Secretary election - clear guidance to staff not to campaign in work time or using UNISON resources

UNISON has today published the election procedures for the forthcoming General Secretary election.

 

There are a number of changes since previous such elections, some of which will are clearly in response to the findings of the Certification Officer in response to complaints in the previous election.

 

One of the recommendations of the Certification Officer at paragraph 311 was that “the Union has a thorough internal discussion and debate to consider what level of paid officer activity in internal General Secretary election campaigning it wishes to have, consistent with its aims and objectives, and draft clear, unambiguous and uniformly understood rules, to reflect the decisions it reaches.”

 

I haven’t myself seen any evidence of a “thorough internal discussion and debate” (and indeed an attempt by the Lambeth Branch to propose motions for discussion at National Delegate Conference 2017 was ruled out of order) – but the new election procedures do include – at Appendix 1.B improved guidance to staff generally about their rights to campaign for candidates in the election.

 

This includes – for example – at paragraph 4;

 

“For the avoidance of doubt in relation to a member of staff’s ‘own time’, all working hours should be clearly recorded on a daily or weekly basis in order to protect their position. Staff are not permitted to undertake any campaigning activities on behalf of a candidate or candidates during any time recorded as working time.”

 

This would certainly mean that there should not be any doubtful campaigning by staff in what was obviously work time – as was clearly shown to have happened in the 2015 election.

 

Paragraph 5 is also an important paragraph;

 

“Staff, equally have the right not to participate in any campaigning on behalf of a particular candidate or candidates and shall not be subject to any detriment as a result of a decision not to participate in any campaign. Any perceived detriment or pressure staff feel has been experienced should be reported immediately. Any reports will be dealt with under the relevant procedures/processes.”

 

Given the evidence, from 2015, of the former Greater London Regional Secretary giving what appeared to be management instructions to staff to campaign for a particular candidate this is an important clarification of the proper position, as is paragraph 8, which states that;

 

“If any member of staff has a complaint they can raise this with Director of the Executive Office or through the Staff Whistle Blowing Policy if the complaint/s comply with the criteria.”

 

This paragraph of the election procedure seems to reflect a response to the fourth recommendation of the Certification Officer’s 2017 report into complaints about the 2015 election (at paragraph 314), which was that “a whistleblowing policy should be considered and agreed through the Union’s collective procedures without further delay.” 

 

Certain staff who will have key roles in relation to the administration of the coming General Secretary election are now excluded from the right to campaign in the election, including the Assistant General Secretary (Regions and Governance) (who line manages Regional Secretaries). This is also a welcome and positive development, since the absence of such a prohibition in the past, which meant that a previous postholder was able to be the campaign organiser for “Team Dave” had put that postholder, and the Union in a most invidious position.

 

As there will not be an incumbent candidate in the forthcoming election it is likely that the campaign will be more “open” than the past three elections. With the best will in the world, and without any suggestion of malpractice upon the part of any incumbent candidate in any trade union election, an incumbent has certain obvious advantages, and staff involved in an election in which their (ultimate) “boss” is a candidate may always feel that they should, during the election campaign, speak up for the individual for whom (as the leading figurehead of the organisation) they would speak up at any other time.

 

However, the election procedures – which will hopefully continue to apply in the same way into the future – now correctly steer staff much more strongly to be “neutral” in their official capacity as employees and would hopefully empower employees to stand up against the sort of malpractice that took place at the Greater London Regional Office in October 2015.

 

I was – and remain – saddened that so many paid officials sat through a meeting and listened to their Regional Secretary instructing them to do what they must have known was morally wrong, even if they paid insufficient attention to the affairs of the trade union for which they worked to have known that this was against the election procedures.

 

That so many Regional Organisers and other staff can sit quietly in the face of such an abuse of power does little to encourage those who come to learn of this that these are people who could be expected to stand up to the abuse of power by employers when they encounter it. Now that the election procedures are crystal clear, and the Whistleblowing policy is in place, I hope that UNISON will not in future be shamed in this way.

 

There have also been other changes to the General Secretary election procedures since 2015, reflecting changes to election procedures in recent elections to Service Group Executives (SGEs) and the National Executive Council (NEC), which seek to restrict rank and file organisation through unofficial channels (and which are an obvious attempt to hold back candidates seeking to change the Union), but I am not commenting upon those in this blog post.

 

As one of the complainants to the Certification Officer in 2016/17, I will be very pleased if the legacy of our complaint is a somewhat more level playing field in this and future General Secretary elections.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

The lessons from previous elections for UNISON General Secretary?

With the timetable for the UNISON General Secretary election set to be released to activists on Monday and several candidates already having declared their actual or potential candidacy, I have already been told online who I support (even before having made a decision).

 

Having been in and around every previous UNISON General Secretary election, as an activist, I thought I would share here my recollections of previous elections and some analysis of those results (on the basis that, whilst past history isn’t a direct guide to our future, we ought to base our decisions in the here and now on an informed understanding of what came before).

 

The first UNISON General Secretary election 1995

 

Before the first UNISON General Secretary election there was some controversy as to whether the left should stand a candidate against the heir apparent, the then Associate General Secretary of UNISON (and former General Secretary of NUPE), the late Rodney Bickerstaffe.

 

Some on the Labour Left, most notably Geoff Martin who was then Chair of the London Regional Affiliated Political Fund Committee (or UNISON Labour Link Committee as we would now say) and would go on to be elected Convenor of the Greater London Region the following year, were concerned that we could split the vote and let a right-winger in.

 

After some deliberation I was (eventually) in a minority of activists within the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic UNISON (CFDU) who opposed the CFDU standing a candidate for this reason, but supported the campaign of Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister, when the CFDU took that decision. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who refused to join the CFDU, backed the candidacy of one of their members, Yunus Bashkh.

 

In the 1995 General Secretary election the voting was as follows: Rodney Bickerstaffe 151,893 votes (47.7 per cent of the vote); Peter Hunter 93,402 (29.3 per cent); Roger Bannister 58,052 (18.2 per cent); Yunus Bashkh 15,139 (4.8 per cent).

 

The Bickerstaffe era, 1995-2000 and the second General Secretary election

 

Rodney’s time as General Secretary witnessed the election of a New Labour Government in 1997 and the success of our campaign for a National Minimum Wage (though not at an acceptable rate – hence UNISON’s national demonstration through Newcastle demanding five pounds an hour). Within UNISON there was controversy about trade union democracy and the Union’s disciplinary rules.

 

In the late 1990s there was something of a rapprochement between various forces on the “organised left” (as we generally preferred to call ourselves), in part as a product of a gathering witch hunt, targeting mostly members of the SWP. Although UNISON United Left (UUL) had not, as I recall formally come into existence at the time of the 2000 General Secretary election, the SWP and CFDU jointly supported the candidacy of Roger Bannister.

 

Dave Prentis, then Deputy General Secretary (as he had been to Alan Jinkinson in NALGO) emerged as the favoured candidate of UNISON officialdom with the (crucial) support of many key lay members. Geoff Martin, who was now UNISON Greater London Regional Convenor, briefly threw his hat into the ring, but subsequently retrieved it.

 

The hoped for unity of the left (in an election without an incumbent General Secretary) was frustrated by the candidacy of Malkiat Bilku, leader of the Hillingdon Hospital Strikers, who ran with the support of the once mighty Workers’ Revolutionary Party and their paper, the News Line.

 

In the 2000 election the voting was as follows: Dave Prentis 125,584 votes (56.0 per cent of the vote); Roger Bannister 71,021 (31.7 per cent) Malkiat Bilku 27,785 (12.4 per cent).

 

Dave Prentis’ first term of office and re-election in 2005

 

During the first term of Dave Prentis the New Labour Government moved away from the policies of our trade union and, initially at least, the space for the left to organise in UNISON seemed to expand. I myself had cause for gratitude to the new General Secretary in 2001 when he called off proposed disciplinary action against me – although other cases from the Bickerstaffe era were followed through.

 

In 2003 the previous practice of electing Regional NEC representatives one year and Service Group NEC representatives the next came to an end and, in the first election of a whole NEC, the organised left on the NEC reached double figures (with myself among them). This brief springtime for UUL never reached summer though, as at the 2004 National Delegate Conference, Socialist Party members announced their departure from the (briefly) “United” Left.

 

Whilst the public political justification for this move was that there were those of us in UUL who continued to be members of the Labour Party, even in the face of the horrendous injustice and abuse of the Iraq War (and the other reactionary policies of Blair’s second term) the real reason was that the comrades in the Socialist Party believed that Roger Bannister would not be chosen as the UUL General Secretary candidate for the 2005 General Secretary election.

 

Ironically, it was the departure of the Socialist Party comrades from UUL which made it inevitable that UUL would run a General Secretary candidate in the (as it would turn out) unwarranted hope that this would provide a platform to build left organisation within UNISON. When the obvious candidate of UUL (a friend who had, against my advice, joined the SWP in 1998 and who would go on to become a senior official) made clear that she would not be a candidate, I agreed to stand.

 

In the 2005 election Dave Prentis was re-elected with an increased majority, once again defeating Roger Bannister, and (on this occasion) myself in a pretty miserable third place. The detailed voting was Dave Prentis 184,769 votes (75.6 per cent) Roger Bannister 41,406 (16.9 per cent) Jon Rogers 18,306 (7.5 per cent).

 

 

Dave Prentis’ second term of office and the 2010 General Secretary election

 

The divided left fell back in numbers in the 2005 NEC elections and the General Secretary’s second term saw renewed attacks upon left-wing activists, beginning with disciplinary action against delegates who joined a walkout when Tony Blair addressed the Trades Union Congress in 2006 and accelerating with the widely publicised and (now) legendary “three wise monkeys” disciplinary action commencing at National Delegate Conference in 2007.

 

The attacks on our members’ standard of living which would accelerate after the election of the Coalition Government in 2010 began even before the economic crash of 2008 with (for example) New Labour’s assault on public sector pensions (which, like so much else, prefigured what would be a more savage assault by the Tories). The consequent controversy within UNISON became more pronounced, and the left made modest gains in the NEC elections of 2007 and 2009.

 

When the 2010 General Secretary election was called, at short notice, Roger Bannister announced his candidacy again, with the backing of the Socialist Party, and UUL selected and supported NEC member Paul Holmes as a candidate.

 

In the 2010 election Dave Prentis was re-elected with a reduced share of the vote, but still a large overall majority, beating Roger Bannister into second place and Paul Holmes into third. The detailed voting was Dave Prentis 145,351 votes (67.3 per cent) Roger Bannister: 42,651(19.7 per cent) Paul Holmes: 28,114 (13.0 per cent).

 

Dave Prentis’ third term of office and the 2015 General Secretary election

 

The re-election of Dave Prentis in 2010 followed the election of the Coalition Government, and his third term saw the decisive struggle of that Government, over public service pensions, culminating in the Great Strike of 30 November 2011 and the subsequent retreat by the leadership of the largest trade unions.

 

Members’ anger at the pay freeze – and the failure of the trade unions to mount an effective resistance – led to an irregular and inconsistent pattern of further gains for the left in NEC elections of 2011, 2013 and 2015. However, the organisation of the left became fractured with splits in UUL following the crisis in the SWP in 2013 of that organisation’s deplorable handling of allegations of rape.

 

In 2015 the left caucus of NEC members made attempts to broker a deal about standing a single General Secretary candidate. Although these were the most serious such attempt in more than fifteen years they did not bear fruit, and the Socialist Party backed Roger Bannister once more, whilst a majority of the left caucus backed the candidacy of Barnet Branch Secretary John Burgess.

 

A new feature of this election was that Heather Wakefield, then UNISON Head of Local Government, who had briefly put her head above the parapet as a possible General Secretary candidate in 2010, followed through on her intention and embarked upon a campaign to replace Dave Prentis, meaning that, for the first time, voters in UNISON had a choice not only between the incumbent and rank and file candidates but also the option of an alternative “official” candidate.

 

Some supporters of the incumbent General Secretary saw this situation as threatening, contributing to the misbehaviour in the Greater London Regional Office which would go on to be exposed in the decision of the Certification Officer. Some supporters of Wakefield tried to persuade those of us backing one or other of the rank and file candidates to get them to stand aside to mount a single unified challenge to the incumbent General Secretary and change the Union.

 

As a supporter of John Burgess at the time I resisted those arguments. With the enormous benefit of hindsight I don’t think that I – and we – were necessarily right to have done so.

 

In the 2015 election the voting was as follows (the details are in paragraph 214 of that report at that link): Dave Prentis 66,155 votes (49.4 per cent) Heather Wakefield 35,433 (26.4 per cent) Roger Bannister 16,853 (12.6 per cent) John Burgess 15,573 (11.6 per cent).

 

What can we take from the results of previous General Secretary elections?

 

What comes out of looking at all these voting figures? Perhaps the first and most obvious trend is the declining turnout (down from 17% in 2000 to 9.8% in 2015). The falling proportion of UNISON members voting in General Secretary elections hardly suggests that our Union’s engagement with our membership is in a state of rude health.

 

The decline in support for the incumbent General Secretary from 2005 to 2015 – evidence of a desire for change?

 

The next obvious feature is that, after a spike in support at his first re-election the incumbent General Secretary, Dave Prentis, saw his support tail off with each following election.

 

This is set out in Table 1 and Chart 1 below;

 


 

 

 

This indication of declining enthusiasm for the “status quo” within UNISON since 2005 obviously gives encouragement to all those who want to be a “change” candidate (although of course the votes for opponents have been split between two or more candidates on each occasion).

 

Do the votes cast in the last four General Secretary elections support the view that we can elect a rank and file candidate as General Secretary?

 

However, that appearance (and reality) of growing opposition to the incumbent General Secretary is not quite the whole story, because when – in 2015 – voters were offered the choice (for the first time) between two officials, more of the majority of voters who voted against the incumbent backed an official seen as being to the left of the incumbent (26.4%) than the combined vote for the two rank and file candidates (24.2%).

 

If we want to compare the votes for “official” and “rank and file” candidates, these look like Chart 2 and Table 2:

 

 

 

 

These figures show that the recent ‘high water mark” for votes for rank and file candidates was back in the year 2000 (and in fact, since all of the opponents of Rodney Bickerstaffe in 1995 had been lay members, the “official” share of the vote in 2000 was lower than it had been in 1995, when lay candidates had won the majority of votes).

 

In the most recent election – the first in which Dave Prentis failed to secure a majority of all votes cast – the combined share of the vote for the two rank and file candidates was as low as it had been in 2005 (and on a lower turnout).

 

There is, without doubt, an enthusiasm for voting for a “rank and file” General Secretary on the part of many activists – it is an enthusiasm I understand (and share to a great degree). What there is not, is any evidence that this enthusiasm is shared, to anything like the same extent, amongst the electorate of UNISON members who vote in General Secretary elections.

 

What is the evidence of the strength of the Socialist Party as an electoral force supporting a rank and file candidate for UNISON General Secretary?

 

Amongst the variety of rank and file challengers there has been one consistent name (up to now). Indeed, if this will be the first UNISON General Secretary election in a quarter of a century in which Dave Prentis is not a candidate, it will be the first UNISON General Secretary election ever in which Roger Bannister will not be a candidate.

 

Much to the frustration of other socialists in the Union, Roger insisted upon his candidacy (unless – as he put it in 2015 – he was convinced there was a better candidate) and it didn’t matter how many votes were held at “hustings” meetings, or how many more nominations other rank and file candidates could collect than Roger. He insisted upon standing time and again and – time and again – more UNISON members voted for him than for any other rank and file challenger.

 

Aside from the 1995 election, when a right-wing ex-NALGO candidate had come in a strong second place ahead of two left-wing rank and file candidates, Roger’s vote invariably exceeded those of other rank and file challengers.

 

The various figures are compared in Chart 3 and Table 3.

 


 

 

However, these figures do not show a steady “forward march” for the irrepressible (and inevitable) candidate of the Socialist Party over the past two decades. On the contrary, Roger’s best result (both in absolute terms and relative to another rank and file challenger) had been in 2000, and his weakest performance, both in absolute and relative terms had come in 2015.

 

Roger Bannister consistently outperformed other left-wing rank and file candidates. There is, however, no evidence to support the view that a candidate backed by the Socialist Party will automatically outpoll another rank and file candidate, still less that they would have any chance of actually winning and becoming General Secretary.

 

Conversely, neither is there any evidence that another rank and file candidate would automatically perform better than a candidate backed by the Socialist Party.

 

Conclusions?

 

The immediate issue which confronts UNISON members is which candidate to support in the forthcoming General Secretary election, and for activists on the left, whether to stand a rank and file candidate (and if so, who).

 

The results of previous General Secretary elections cannot make that decision for us – but any reasonable decision ought to be justifiable with reference to objective evidence, and that evidence certainly includes the results of previous General Secretary elections.

 

 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Don't feed the trolls!

I recently broke my own rule, by being drawn into an argument with someone I barely know on social media (which is invariably a waste of time). This was an individual who took issue with my critical comments on correspondence published online by some Labour Councillors expressing their disagreement with a decision of the Labour Group.

 

The tone and content of the online exchange got me thinking about how exchanges on social media can give a very negative impression of those who participate in them.

 

At the present time, I know that a number of socialist members of the Labour Party, perhaps particularly some of those who have joined, or re-joined, the Party in the period since 2015, are very distressed, angry and demoralised as a result of various recent developments in the Party. Some individuals have left the Party.

 

Not surprisingly, I feel very strongly that socialists should not resign their membership of the Party, which is the Party founded upon the trade unions and therefore a vehicle for the expression of the political voice of the organised working class. Having been a Party member now for more than forty years, I have been greatly encouraged by the growth of Party membership over the past few years.

 

The Labour Party I would like to see would be a mass membership Party rooted in communities and trade unions up and down the country, under the control of that mass membership, seeking to transform our society in the interests of working people and their families, tackling all forms of discrimination and injustice.

 

Labour has been a mass membership Party at times in its past, and one feature of such a Party has been, is, and will be, its political breadth, encompassing points of view ranging from moderate social democracy to the “deepest red” socialism of those of us on what is sometimes referred to as the “hard left”.

 

Across the breadth of our politics there will always be, from time to time, profound disagreements, sometimes finding robust expression, but these can (and in my view always should) be managed with courtesy, respect and good humour – or as the old-fashioned among us might say “comradeship”.

 

There is an alternative model of the Labour Party which some others may prefer, which would be a “top-down” Party, led by full-time politicians, relying upon fewer, larger donations from wealthy individuals or private companies (this was the direction of travel of the Party in the late nineties and early years of this century).

 

Those who would like to return to the previous “New Labour” model will not be troubled by the departure from the Party of socialists, on the contrary they will celebrate such departures. Despair (on the part of socialists) is therefore their ally.

 

Those who wish to denigrate Labour as a mass membership Party also have an interest in presenting the Party as an unpleasant environment, dominated by internal division and strife, and one easy way to do that is to be aggressively argumentative on social media in order to elicit a response.

 

At the point at which I pulled myself up, and stopped responding to online goading, I paused to reflect upon just how inaccurate an image of our Party is given by those who may try their best to make it into the bear-pit of their worst imaginings. Indeed, this thought was prompted by the delivery of a lovely rose bush sent to me from members of our Constituency Executive to celebrate my civil partnership with my wonderful partner.

 

This happy news has prompted kind greetings from many members of our Party. During lockdown I have had less good news, both about the progression of my cancer and the death of my father and in each of those cases also I have been moved by the number of generous and compassionate comments from Party members, from all points of the political compass within the Party’s broad church.

 

I look forward to our being able to return to more regular meetings of our Party, not only because this is necessary in order for there to be democratic accountability of elected officials and office-holders at all levels, but also because the Party I know consists, overwhelmingly of good, kind well-intentioned people sharing, in our different ways, visions of a better society.

 

I won’t abandon social media, because it has provided – during lockdown – a channel whereby comrades in the Party have reached out and expressed compassion and support both to myself and to each other, but I will keep to my own rule from now on.

 

I won’t “feed the trolls”.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Brighton and Hove Council - a way forward?

As ever on this blog, these are my personal opinions.

 

Over the past few weeks disciplinary action has been initiated by the Labour Party against three members of the Labour Group on Brighton and Hove City Council, in two cases this involved (or would have involved) suspension from the Group.

 

Two of the Councillors concerned have resigned the Labour Whip.

 

I am not writing this post to comment upon these cases as such. I believe in the principle that people are innocent until they are proven guilty – and that this applies regardless of what it is that they are accused of having said or done. Party members (or anyone else) rushing to judgement about cases which have yet to be properly investigated are adopting a course of action which I won’t adopt.

 

What I do intend to comment about now – in a strictly personal capacity – is the way in which these developments have brought to a head issues about how progressive Councillors in Brighton and Hove can and should try to achieve the implementation of progressive policies by the Council.

 

The May 2019 local election results were disappointing for Labour. Although we made some progress against the Conservatives and – in a couple of cases came tantalisingly close to making further progress – we lost ground to the Greens in Brighton Pavilion in particular.

 

There are many reasons for these disappointing results, and commentators tend to focus on those reasons which best support whatever case it is that they want to make.

 

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the Greens had a very good local election (prefiguring the further increase which the popular incumbent MP would see in her majority in December’s General Election). Their position of opposition to Brexit (as much as it was technically irrelevant to a local election) played well in strongly Remain-supporting parts of our City and they did not face the problem of well publicised internal division, from which our Party unfortunately suffered.

 

In any event, the outcome of the election was what it was and – at that point – we had a Labour Group of 20 and a Green Group of 19 on the Council. Neither Party could govern with a majority alone, either could govern with a majority if they made an arrangement with the Conservatives, or they could talk to each other.

 

As an aside it is worth noting that as disappointing as the elections were for Labour, they were catastrophic for the Tories – reduced to the status of the third Party on the Council across Brighton and Hove, two towns (as they then were) which, when I was growing up here, had always been Conservative controlled.

 

Labour and Green Councillors compared their manifesto commitments and found a great deal of overlap in the policies for which their voters had voted. Therefore, they came to an agreement about joint working between the Labour administration and the Green Opposition to try to achieve their shared objectives.

 

It is worth saying that some of these objectives – like reaching a carbon neutral City by 2030, tackling the Housing crisis and refocusing the Council on community wealth building – were radical objectives which required – and still require - the Council to find different ways of doing what it has done before.

 

The history of the past two decades of Brighton and Hove City Council has been of minority administrations negotiating their way through each decision more or less vote by vote – and one of the lasting consequences of this history was plainly a culture in which Council officers were used to being in effective control of the Council.

 

Having spent a working lifetime in local government, most of it as a senior union official, I don’t necessarily have a problem with Council officers having the power they should have (sometimes it is easier, as a union representative, to negotiate with officers than Members!) However, my observation of Brighton and Hove City Council is that the lengthy period of shifting minority administrations had created a culture in which senior officials were inappropriately empowered and Councillors had come to lack confidence and ambition.

 

I was very struck last year (before the local elections) to be told by a sitting Councillor that their experience was generally that they needed to write to officers at least twice to get a response. That is not the appropriate respect which should be shown to elected Members by local government employees. It was a product of an authority in which, for a long time, when the Council Leader told the Chief Executive what they wanted, the Chief Executive could turn round and say “but do you have the political support?”

 

In May last year the people of Brighton and Hove voted in approximately equal numbers for Labour candidates and for Green candidates – and approximately equal numbers of Labour and Green Councillors were elected. What was clear was that the Conservatives, who once seemed set to rule this part of the south coast for ever, had been comprehensively rejected.

 

Since central political objectives of each of the Labour and Green parties – as set out in their manifestos – were highly similar, the two Groups – sensibly in my view – came to arrangements to work together constructively to try to achieve their goals.

 

Whatever views one takes about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of two Labour Councillors and the suspension of another from the Labour Group, none of those developments change the content of the manifestos on which Councillors were elected to the Council. The question remains, how do our elected Councillors work to achieve the objectives which their Parties set for them – in their manifestos – and for which their voters voted?

 

The Labour Party now needs to find a way, in spite of the current moratorium on physical meetings, to consult our membership on the way forward for Labour Councillors to try to achieve the implementation of the objectives set out in our manifesto in the recently changed circumstances.

 

Labour Party members will, of course, want to ensure that we, as a Party, chart a course which enables us to campaign for the election of the maximum number of Labour representatives at future elections, whenever they come. Any working arrangement with another Party challenges a simplistic partisan approach to identifying and acting upon the best interests of the Party.

 

There are other local authorities where Labour works with other Parties in the administration of the Council whilst campaigning vigorously and independently for the election of Labour representatives when elections come round. It would be a great failure of imagination to believe that we could not achieve this in Brighton and Hove.

 

Of course, any joint working arrangements depend upon both parties (and indeed, both Parties) and we cannot control events unilaterally. We can, however, (if we wish) set out a positive approach to achieving effective democratic oversight of the authority and to mobilising a majority on the Council to implement key policies for which a majority in the City have voted.

 

This is what the Labour administration and Green opposition have been trying to achieve through their “Memorandum of Understanding” over recent months – and I would suggest that the circumstances of recovery from covid-19 only increase the case for such cooperation.

 

These are my views. Others have different views about what is best for our Party and our City. I hope that we will be able, as a Party to construct a means of consulting our membership in which all views can find expression, and a democratic decision can be taken so that the Party can guide the Labour Group in the challenging circumstances in which our Councillors now find themselves.

 

I am sure that the Labour Group leadership will continue to act upon the Group’s decision to seek to discuss a formal power sharing agreement with the Green Group – and very much hope that the Green Group will be open to having such discussion – so that the members of both Parties will know what it is that they are being consulted upon.

 

Reading what passes for local media these days (or, which is worse, paying too much attention to social media) one could end up obsessively focusing upon the urgency of individual cases and the subsequent impact upon who sits where in the Town Hall.

 

When politics seems to be about individuals, about what they have said or done, and what is to be done about that, and about numbers of Members of political groups on a local authority it is worth raising one’s eyes and looking at the ambitious goals which our Party set for our Councillors in our Manifesto.


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

UNISON over the past twenty years - neither growing nor (our members) prospering

The announcement yesterday of the forthcoming retirement of Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary for the past twenty years, will be the occasion for much praise. You won’t be reading this blog expecting to see more of that. Those who want to consider the future of UNISON (and therefore make decisions about candidates to replace Mr Prentis) need to take a clear-headed view about what has been happening to our trade union over the past twenty years.

 

This blog post is a small contribution to that necessary discussion and I shall start by looking at what is happening to our membership, based upon the returns which the Union makes to the Certification Officer. The number of members contributing to the General Fund (i.e. paying subscriptions) according to the earliest return readily accessible online (for 2003) was 1,301,000. The equivalent figure in the most recent return published online (for 2018) was 1,204,500. That decline of 7.4% over those fifteen years may well have been arrested – even reversed – more recently, and in any case compares favourably to the plight of the movement generally over the same period.



 

However, the performance of the trade union in achieving what it is that members look for from a union is perhaps less satisfactory – I will take the case of pay in local government (UNISON’s largest Service Group) and look at the National Joint Council for Local Government Services (NJC) the body which negotiates pay for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and is the largest single bargaining unit in the economy). UNISON has a majority of seats on the trade union side of the NJC.

 

On 1 January 2001 (when UNISON’s third General Secretary commenced the first of his four terms of office) the hourly rate for the lowest paid local government worker was £4.61(an annual salary of £8,886) and spine point 28 was £9.52 (£18,372). This compared with a National Minimum Wage rate (for those aged 22 and above) of £3.70. The lowest point on the pay spine was therefore 25% above the minimum wage and spine point 28 (the highest point at which there is an entitlement to overtime payments under the terms of the national agreement) was more than two and a half times the minimum wage.

 

The current rate of the minimum wage is £8.72, the lowest point on the NJC pay spine is £9.00 an hour (an annual salary of £17,364) and the new spine point 22 – the equivalent of the old spine point 28 – is £13.64 (£26,317). The lowest point on the pay spine is now barely 3% above the minimum wage (as opposed to 25% twenty years ago) and a local government worker on the equivalent of the old spinal column point (SCP) 28 is now on just over one and a half times the minimum wage, as opposed to two and a half times when Mr Prentis first took office as General Secretary.

 

Looked at another way, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose from 72.6 in January 2001 to 108.5 in May 2020 (by 49.4%) so the money terms increase of 43.3% in the salary of a local government employee on old spine point 28 was actually a 9.6% reduction in real terms (whilst the 30% real terms increase at the bottom of the pay spine was outpaced by the 58% real terms increase in the minimum wage).

 

Neither during a decade of New Labour, nor during a decade of austerity (which also witnessed dramatic reductions in employment in local government) have we been able to improve the pay of UNISON members in our largest Service Group, other than for the lowest paid (whose fortunes have been influenced more by the need to try – and fail – to keep pace with increases in the statutory minimum wage rather more than by any gains from collective bargaining).

 

The challenge facing those who would step into the shoes of Dave Prentis is to set out a plan to build the union – and to increase its effectiveness in promoting and defending the interests of its members and potential members.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Dave Prentis retires - how should we elect his successor?

It is official then. Having served four terms as UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis, now in his 70s, will not seek a fifth.

 

There’s a fair bit to be said about Dave’s time at the helm, but that is not the purpose of this post. Nor do I intend here and now to blog about the question of his successor. I should imagine I may get round to both those things, having already started thinking about the latter.

 

As reported on Labourlist, Prentis said today that “in order to comply with trade union law, our NEC development and organisation committee will meet this week to discuss a timetable to elect my successor and full details will be published once that is agreed.”

 

Having spent fourteen years, from 2003 to 2017, serving on that Committee, covering the three previous elections for General Secretary, I think that what will happen is that the “D&O” Committee will meet this week and make recommendations to the full National Executive Council (NEC).

 

Some aspects of the forthcoming election are laid down in the Rule Book – such as the number of nominations which a candidate will require. Other aspects, such as the precise timetable, are within the discretion of the NEC.

 

Paragraph 7 of Schedule C to the Rule Book sets it all out; “The National Executive Council shall have the power to determine any matter of procedure or organisation or administration of or relating to the election, including the power to determine the method of voting (whether to be by simple majority; by single transferable vote; by multitransferable vote; or by some other system) provided that the person(s) securing the greatest number(s) of votes according to the system employed shall be the person(s) declared elected, so long as they are and remain eligible for election.”

 

In all previous elections the NEC have decided to use the system of “first past the post”, which the Rule Book rather misleadingly describes as “simple majority” (since it doesn’t actually require a candidate to win a majority of votes, just a plurality – i.e. more than any other individual candidate). Whilst I was on the NEC I tried – and failed – on more than one occasion to make the case for using a preferential voting system.

 

I hope that, as UNISON moves into a new era, those now serving on the D&O Committee will at least pause to consider whether they should recommend that the NEC uses its discretion to decide to use STV in the forthcoming General Secretary election.

 

A preferential voting system not only ensures that the winning candidate wins with the support (even if not the first preference) of a majority of those who vote, it also encourages a more positive campaign as between competing candidates, since second and – if there are enough candidates nominated – subsequent preferences are in play.

 

UNISON turned 27 this month, which is too old to be a Young Member, and it may just be time for the internal political culture of our trade union to grow up.


Or perhaps I am just a hopeless optimist.