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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.




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.



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