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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)

Monday, October 05, 2020

UNISON General Secretary election - a steady pair of hands?

Apparently it is - in the opinion of the frontrunner to succeed Dave Prentis as General Secretary of UNISON (expressed in an interview with the "Left Foot Forward" Blog) - both patronising and misogynistic to characterise her as the "continuity" candidate in the current UNISON General Secretary election.


Regular readers of this blog - Sid and Doris Blogger - will realise that your humble blogger has been accused of various misdeeds over a lengthy and chequered career as a lay UNISON activist. It would appear that "patronising misogynist" should now be added to the charge sheet.


In my defence (and I don't think that I am the only one who faces this charge) I would make only a couple of points.


First, I judge Christina McAnea to be the continuity candidate because, from the outset, she has been supported by the bulk of UNISON's ruling faction - the faction that (aside from a brief period when it emerged blinking into the sunlight and went by the name "Stronger UNISON" – later to be submerged into a Facebook Page "UNISON Unity") does not generally admit that it exists, but which - for all my time on the National Executive Council (NEC) - included a majority of that august body. 


I don't claim that this is the only support for the frontrunner candidate. Christina McAnea has solid support in Scotland - a UNISON Region which had drifted away from the ruling faction as it had led our union into the doldrums over recent years, and Roger McKenzie has peeled away some of those who supported "Team Dave" in the previous General Secretary election.


However, from the perspective of someone with years of experience dealing with UNISON's ruling faction, this blogger concludes that a candidate backed by the bulk of those who have been calling the shots in the Union for years would find it difficult to lead radical change even were she to commit to that objective.


Which observation leads to my second line of defence, and the second reason why I consider it reasonable to describe Christina McAnea as the "continuity candidate" in the General Secretary election. This is because her manifesto does not (at least not on this blogger's reading of the document) commit to radical change.


It seems – to this (literally) superannuated old leftist at least – not unreasonable to characterise a candidate coming from within the mainstream of the current leadership of a trade union, and promising improvements which do not reverse the Union's direction of travel in any significant ways (whilst avoiding criticism of the incumbent whom she wishes to replace) as a "continuity candidate" – in particular when the candidate says (of herself) "I am a steady pair of hands."


If, which would have been unlikely, this blogger had been approached for advice by the McAnea campaign, I think I would probably have said – if you don't want to be described as a "continuity candidate" don't go round describing yourself as a "steady pair of hands." (But that's probably just my patronising misogyny showing…)


As to what this "steady pair of hands" would do if elected General Secretary, it appears – from the interview with "Left Foot Forward" – that they would wave goodbye to longer serving activists, described as "gatekeepers' who don't move over – people will proudly tell you they've been a branch secretary for 30 years".


This is hardly an original observation, and when asked; "Would you ask them to step aside?" McAnea's response, expressed in the first-person plural is; "We'd ask: could you mentor someone? Could we work with you to find someone to come forward and be an activist?" (I should add that I don't think that this use of the first-person plural is indicative of any aspirations to monarchy – I think it illustrates the way in which the mainstream leadership of the Union look at the organisation "we" means "those of us in the full-time employment of the organisation" although it sometimes extends to certain members of the NEC).


As someone who served as a Branch Secretary for twenty-five years, twice standing down and being dragged back before escaping at my third attempt, and also as an activist observing our trade union over a long period, I think the problem of long-serving activists getting "stuck" in particular roles is really rather more a symptom than a cause of the decline in activism. How things appear from the perspective of UNISON HQ is not necessarily how they are on the ground.


More worrying for those concerned for the future of UNISON is the observation, from the frontrunning candidate for General Secretary that "relatively small political organisations seem to have a lot of influence in Unison – don't know whether that puts some people off?"


When asked "Do you mean the Socialist Party?" Christina McAnea elaborated "The Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers' Party – people are entitled to be in whatever party they want, I'm glad they want to get involved and take on difficult jobs – that's great. But you do wonder if that focus may put off other people who aren't as politically active. In the grand scheme of things, I'm sure it's one issue among many."


That there is more than a morsel of equivocation in that answer is hardly surprising from a candidate who proudly acknowledges membership of the Communist Party in her youth, but the very fact that a candidate for General Secretary chooses to raise the marginal issue of "small political organisations" in such an interview without having been asked is illuminating.


The agenda of hostility to union activists who are members of far-left political organisations is very much the agenda of the faction previously known as "Stronger UNISON" (driven by fear of losing seats on the NEC to candidates from the left). The spontaneous expression of this hostility – however hedged about with qualifications – is more than a dog-whistle to those supporters. We can all hear it.


Ironically, the weight of the parties of the far-left within UNISON's left has been declining just as the left has been advancing in recent years. Only a relatively small minority of those voting for Paul Holmes rather than Christina McAnea at the NEC last month were members of either the SP or the SWP. As with the presence of very long serving activists "stuck" in roles for decades, the high profile of small organisations is a symptom rather than a cause of declining activism in our trade union. Again, how things appear from the perspective of UNISON HQ is not necessarily how they are on the ground.


However, it is difficult to read these words from our would-be General Secretary and not read them as a green light for those who would like to resume the political hostilities against the far left in our trade union which have been, intermittently, a most regrettable and counterproductive feature of UNISON life since Vesting Day.


On each occasion that UNISON officials have begun to try to use administrative means to limit the influence of the far left in our trade union (whether through the suspension of the Birmingham and Sheffield branches, following concern about donations to the SWP in the 1990s or the attacks on Tony Staunton, Yunus Bakhsh and four Socialist Party activists in 2006/7) the political witch hunt has subsequently careered out of control, dragging down other socialist trade union activists who were deemed critical or troublesome before eventually spiralling into insignificance.


The problem of UNISON having insufficient activists, and of those activists not adequately representing the diversity of our membership is not a problem of the activists we do have (nor of their age, length of service or politics) – it is a problem of the activists we don't have because we have failed to recruit, organise, mobilise and motivate them.


One easy way for any of the candidates standing for election to be UNISON's next General Secretary to clear up any confusion about whether it would be fair or unfair to describe them as a "continuity candidate" would be for them to make clear that, on their watch, UNISON would never return to the damaging practice of using administrative measures to resolve political differences and would never again "witch hunt" socialist activists.


eddy coulson said...

I had been an activist and paid official for 35 years. In that time I worked alongside Hugo for around 19 years, he being in NALGO and me in NUPE. He has better credentials to be GS than Dave Prentis. The idea of two males, both black, standing aside in order to defeat a female candidate is bizarre. However, I'd like to see Paul run against Christine with Roger holding his current position. If it's about status or money then we're fucked. Otherwise Paul and Christine go head to head and hope for change.

Doug Wright said...

Because I was a NEC member for Yorkshire and Humberside, I was spuriously stopped from representing Sheffield branch members at their disciplinary hearings. Shortly after he became Unison’s General Secretary, Prentis assured me that the Sheffield branch disciplinary cases scenario would never happen again to other branches. In other words no more political witch hunts. You have correctly shown that he lied to me. I have no doubt that the General Secretary “continuity candidate’ would act in the same way as Prentis.

retired Hackney LG said...

Whilst agreeing with what you wrote I'd like to add that the bureaucracy are often correct that the political left are out of touch with members.Many times I have sat in meetings as pointless irrelevant motions are out forward by the same three or four people, never have these been discussed with the members that elected these people.
In this they just as bureaucratic and short sighted as full time officials.
Thanks for the insights in your blog