Now -read the book!

Here is a link to my memoirs which, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can purchase online at
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)

Sunday, August 16, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - what are the Socialist Party up to and why?

 I have blogged here recently both about my recollections of the five previous UNISON General Secretary elections and my uncertainty about whom to support in the election now underway. I am – as I have put it (and to the seeming amusement of some old friends and comrades) “torn” between two candidates, Paul Holmes and Roger McKenzie, both of whom I respect, each of whom are clearly fighting to win.


Another day, perhaps I will address the question of why the candidates on the left in an election to lead a Union with a million women members are all men – that is not the purpose of this blog post.


From my vantage point as a retired UNISON member on the sidelines of this campaign I have, however, also watched with growing distress the conduct of some supporters of another candidate. I have known Hugo Pierre since the NALGO Branch of which I was Secretary inherited the case of one of the members of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Branch of which he had been Secretary (until ILEA was abolished in 1990).


I have never shared Hugo’s politics, as he is a member of the Socialist Party (SP) (except to the extent that all socialists share a great deal of our politics so that our various divisions baffle and frustrate many of those whom we try to persuade to support us). I have, however, respected Hugo as a long-standing NALGO and then UNISON activist, and continue to do so.


Unfortunately, the circumstances of his candidacy in the current General Secretary election have brought out the worst sectarianism of some of his SP comrades. There is, of course, no novelty in the SP insisting that the “left” should agree by consensus upon a single “unity” candidate for General Secretary (as long as they are a SP member) – but in the past the SP could at least rely upon the record of repeat candidate Roger Bannister (who came in second three times and third twice, every time out polling an alternative rank and file candidate – including myself in 2005 – even when that alternative candidate had secured many more nominations).


On this occasion, lacking the evidence of past electoral performance by “their” candidate in a General Secretary election, some SP members have been reduced to sniping at the candidate backed by UNISON Action Broad Left (UA) (Paul Holmes) – who defeated Hugo in a vote taken by the Steering Committee of that organisation following a hustings at which both Paul and Hugo had spoken, along with Karen Reismann who withdrew in Paul’s favour. Some SP commentators are even claiming to know details of allegations against Paul (which have led to his current lengthy suspension by both UNISON and his employer).


It is fairly clear to any informed observer that the action being taken against Paul by Kirklees Council and the UNISON bureaucracy is a political witch hunt – one can easily apply the test famously advanced by Rodney Bickerstaffe in one of his barnstorming Conference speeches back in 1998 (as I recall) that “if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck then it’s a duck”. It is quite disgraceful to see SP members – many of whom have, like myself, been on the receiving end of unjust misuse of UNISON disciplinary processes for political reasons – using this witch hunt to try to discredit Paul as a candidate.


This disgraceful conduct is then made farcical when those same comrades, upon being blocked in a public UA Facebook group for repeatedly attacking the candidate endorsed by UA or promoting another candidate, complain that this is in fact a “witch hunt”. This hysterical over reaction demonstrates a complete loss of any sense of proportion – but achieves its purpose of rallying the depleted numbers of SP members to the Party’s flag.


UNISON activists who don’t have the leisure time which is available to those of us who are retired may justly be perplexed by the ultra-sectarian and “over the top” reaction of some SP members in this General Secretary election. Having had the time to read two excellent posts (here and here) from former Vice-President of PCS, John McInally (himself I believe an SP member for very many years) I shall summarise what I have learned.


The context for the current behaviour of some SP members in connection with the UNISON General Secretary election is provided by two significant political events (for the SP) in the recent past. The first of these has been the SP’s loss of most of its influence within the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) as a result of their determination to defend an SP member holding the (elected) position of Assistant General Secretary even though – according to an authoritative source – he had lost the confidence of key lay activists and refused to abide by the SP’s signature policy of the “worker’s wage” for union officials.


As a result of this sorry episode the SP have lost a number of their leading activists in PCS to a new political formation within that trade union, and have also abandoned the dominant “Left Unity” group which, working with the socialist General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, has – over the past twenty years – established the largest civil service trade union as a militant force on the left of the labour movement. The SP went so far as to stand a candidate against Serwotka in last year’s PCS General Secretary election campaign.


The SP has not only lost their position of decisive influence at the top of one of the largest trade unions in the UK – they have also lost their leading role in what was probably, for a time, the largest international organisation of “Trotskyist” parties, tendencies and factions – the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).


Indeed, in this case, it was the leadership of the SP in this country (who also – in effect - led the CWI) who engineered a split between itself, supported by a minority of sections of the CWI, and the majority of sections – and members – of the organisation globally. The minority of SP members who remained loyal to the majority within the CWI (now calling itself International Socialist Alternative) were administratively removed from membership of the SP, and can now be found selling a paper called “Socialist Alternative”.


For a group whose raison d’etre is that it is the embryonic leadership of the global proletariat to lose the majority of its international comrades at a stroke is clearly quite traumatic, and the particular venom which SP members engaged in online argument have reserved for UNISON activists whom the SP expelled over this split is remarkable.


In this context, the reason why the SP are so determined to pursue Hugo’s campaign for UNISON General Secretary (which they certainly do not think can be successful) – and to damage the campaign of the other rank and file contender – is because the Party needs to show its own membership that the SP can still provide the leading “rank and file challenger” within UNISON, whatever the implications are for the Union (by way of impact upon the outcome of the election) or for the organisation of the left in the Union (by way of the bitterness being hard learned by a new generation of activists).


Their only objective is to secure 25 branch nominations for Hugo and then to pull out all the stops to ensure that, whilst he will not win, he gets more votes than any other “rank and file” candidate – though even if he does not, his campaign will be heralded as a victory for the “working class orientation” of the SP and its correct political platform.


This is a textbook example of sectarianism – but it isn’t in a textbook. It is taking place in the real world where it is doing real damage to the interests of our class. I hope that all those who care about building the strength of UNISON – including SP members – will see through and disown this futile exercise in party building.


Anonymous said...

John McInally posts, while currently still live in the links above have moved to a new site/blog by John. This is where john will be post part three of his discussion and in the future further posts

Unknown said...

Thank you John. It is the interests of our class that must come first above all conflict. Thanks for such a good explanation of the situation. I was going to nominate Hugo Pierre at my branch nomination meeting but will now nominate Paul Holmes. HP could still get the nomination.

Anonymous said...

Hi - as a branch secretary in a bit of a quieter UNISON branch I do find these posts incredibly helpful to give context to the candidates. Thanks for writing up.