It is, of course, the Royal College of Nursing that has paused its election for President (having disqualified candidates for allegedly misusing official resources in their campaigns) – and which faces a threat of litigation (if a slightly confused one) as a result.
It was the misuse of Union resources which prompted some of us to complain to the Certification Officer following the last General Secretary election. UNISON is hardly alone in having had a General Secretary election lead to litigation in the recent past.
Whereas the RCN is a very different organisation from UNISON, the other larger TUC affiliates have greater similarities. The cases that have been brought against each of the other two of the “big three” in connection with recent General Secretary elections illuminate the different cultures of each union and, in some ways, the strategic options for the future of UNISON.
The GMB is heading for a General Secretary election, its recently re-elected General Secretary, Tim Roache, having resigned for health reasons during lockdown (the GMB having received an anonymous letter making allegations about his conduct). Roach had first been elected five years ago in an election marked by an appallingly low turnout and the Union’s unlawful interference in the embryonic campaign of the only rank and file contender, Keith Henderson.
Anyone who wants to understand why a rank and file candidate is unlikely to emerge in the coming GMB General Secretary election could do worse than read the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Henderson -v- GMB. In GMB the culture of the Union is such that rank and file members cannot even communicate with each other between branches to begin to organise a rank and file organisation, let alone use such an organisation to mount a challenge for leadership.
In UNITE, where General Secretary, Len McCluskey is to stand down early (at some, unspecified, point before 2022), that Union’s culture is such that the United Left’s decision to endorse Steve Turner as its candidate (in an election that has yet to be called) and the decision of his defeated rival for the United Left nomination, Howard Beckett, to stand for General Secretary anyway makes headlines.
The importance of the United Left in UNITE is underlined by the outcome of litigation arising out of the last election (won by McCluskey with 46% of the vote). Defeated right-wing challenger Gerard Coyne, brought a failed challenge to the Certification Officer, complaining inter alia that Len McCluskey’s campaign had been given improper access to UNITE membership information – the Assistant Certification Officer concluded that this information had come from the (separate) database of the United Left (described as “a substantial group of Unite members who shared philosophical and political views about the policies and direction of Unite”).
The United Left is organised in such a way (according to the Certification Officer decision) that “employees of Unite may be members of United Left; but its officers are lay activists within the union.” However, the candidates backed by the United Left in UNITE for the position of General Secretary have, thus far, been paid officials rather than rank and file activists.
UNISON has, in the past, had its own version of the United Left, except that it hasn’t been on the left, it hasn’t operated openly and it hasn’t been led by lay activists (so not really a United “Left” at all – but quite as influential as the United Left in UNITE).
This entity emerged into daylight, in previous General Secretary elections as “Team Dave” but otherwise you had to be a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) to notice that – from time to time – the majority of the NEC would be off to a pre-meeting (to none of which I was ever invited) at which they would ensure that the lay NEC served its ultimate function of delivering the wishes of the full-time leadership of the Union.
For most of my time on the NEC – aside from at General Secretary elections – the dominant faction in the Union had no name or public identity. In the run up to the 2017 NEC elections, in which – following the 2015 General Secretary election – they were concerned at the growing electoral strength of the emerging UNISON Action Broad Left, they declared themselves to be “Stronger UNISON”.
When, having fought for the first time in the open (as it were) the dominant faction found that they had their worst results in UNISON history they changed tack and instead proposed changes to UNISON electoral procedures to try to prevent effective (open) factional organisation – so that in last year’s NEC elections no one (formally) stood other than as an individual.
Those currently calling the shots in UNISON want to ensure that our Union never becomes one in which an effective organisation of the left (like the United Left, or Left Unity in PCS) can take the Union in a radical direction. They probably don’t want to go as far as the GMB in preventing rank and file organisation – and UNISON’s structures would never permit this in any case – but they might wish they could.
Battles for the soul of UNISON for as long as the Union has been in existence (indeed before that, in the negotiations which led to the “Final Report” before the vote on merger)– the decision at the first National Delegate Conference that we were a “member-led” Union; the compromise reflected in the first Democracy in UNISON guidelines in 1998; the struggle over the Union’s Disciplinary Rules around the turn of the century; the witch hunt of socialist activists beginning at the TUC in 2006. These are just some of the episodes in this ongoing struggle.
In the current General Secretary election it is clear that Christina McAnea is the candidate supported by those whose recent attempt to “ban factions” is the latest move by those who argued for a “member-centred” (rather than “member-led”) Union in 1994. It is equally clear that Paul Holmes stands firmly in the tradition of those who fought against the witch hunt from 2006 onwards (indeed he stood there himself at the time).
The candidate who needs, perhaps, to make it clearer where he stands on this question (which he can now do as a candidate in a way in which he could not do in many years as a senior official under the current General Secretary) is Roger McKenzie – or perhaps he will decide not to…?