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, January 19, 2021

UNISON National Executive Council elections - the case for unity on the left

I will blog further about the content of the Returning Officer’s report into the UNISON General Secretary election in due course (regular readers of this Blog - Sid and Doris Blogger - will appreciate that my modesty makes me uncomfortable with the observation in that report that over 100 complaints which were upheld came “from one member between 24 September and 20 November 2020 identifying apparent breaches of procedures by nominating bodies in support of one candidate, Christina McAnea.”) 


My purpose in blogging today is in relation to the forthcoming UNISON NEC elections, in which nominations open on 1 February 2021. These will be the third set of biennial elections in which I will not be a candidate, having served seven successive two-year terms as an NEC member in the Greater London Region from 2003 to 2017.


Throughout my time on the NEC, those of us who considered ourselves to be on the “left” (in the sense of wanting a trade union which would fight more effectively for our members’ interests) tried and - mostly - failed to create a unified organisation of the left (a sorry saga which I covered here a few months ago in anticipation of the - then - forthcoming General Secretary election). As a rule General Secretary elections - in which there could only be one candidate - would be a particular occasion for division.


However, in NEC elections, in which a certain amount of “horse-trading” has always been possible - generally - we managed to organise unified campaigns for a “slate” of candidates even in the absence of a unified organisation of the left. 


The price of failure to agree is high - as we discovered in Greater London in 2005, when we lost incumbent left-wing NEC member Fiona Monkman because the Socialist Party insisted on standing Nancy Taaffe in opposition to United Left member (and then Deputy Regional Convenor) Mandy Berger for the second female seat in the Region. Taaffe came fifth out of five candidates for two seats, but none of the three left-wingers were elected.


A key ingredient in coming to agreement (when we could) was the principle that socialists did not stand against fellow socialists who were incumbent members of the NEC, regardless of whether we were members of the Labour Party, one of the small far-left parties or no party at all. After the setback of 2005, we did manage, slowly and inconsistently to increase the number of critical voices on the UNISON NEC over the years.


Times have changed of course. When the challenge from the left became so great that supporters of the status quo admitted the truth long unacknowledged, that they were themselves a faction within the union - and yet the left came within a whisker or a majority on the NEC in 2017, the lesson was learned - in the great White Elephant of the Euston Road - that what needed to be done was to do all that was possible to frustrate - and delegitimise - rank and file organisation within UNISON.


Comrades challenging for seats on the UNISON NEC today do so in a more challenging environment than that with which I was familiar - the point of electoral procedures which seek to ban groups of members coming together to support slates of candidates is plainly to empower the Union bureaucracy and disempower the rank and file.


Perhaps the lessons which I learned in the past (when the left won far fewer seats on the NEC than are now held) can safely be forgotten. Certainly, in the aftermath of the best performance by a rank and file candidate in any General Secretary election I can see the sense in capturing the momentum of that campaign to take forward into the NEC elections - and that those who chose not to be part of the campaign to elect Paul Holmes can hardly expect to be part of such an endeavour.


However, it is worth bearing in mind that, as the Returning Officer’s report for the General Secretary election points out “Christine McAnea received the most votes in 11 out of the 12 regions and that she received the most votes or was tied for first place in 694 of the 848 branches involved in the election.” 


Her supporters may have squeaked to the narrowest General Secretary victory in UNISON’s history - but they will nevertheless be looking to capitalise upon that victory. Expect election addresses from candidates of the status quo in the UNISON elections to associate themselves with our new General Secretary.


This is probably not a time in which candidates for change in the NEC elections should be facing each other in “first past the post” elections. It’s not that those who refused to accept the decision to support Paul Holmes for General Secretary deserve - or are entitled to - automatic support just because they are current NEC members. 


The point is that UNISON members crying out for change in our Union do not deserve to see socialists fighting one another for those NEC seats, when so many NEC seats are normally filled by supporters of the status quo who are elected unopposed.




Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Outstanding complaints cast a shadow over UNISON General Secretary election result

Christina McAnea has been elected General Secretary of UNISON and deserves congratulations on her victory and best wishes for the challenges she will be leading UNISON members to face. 

The candidate I voted for, rank and file challenger Paul Holmes came a strong second, with more than a third of votes cast - the best showing for any rank and file candidate in UNISON this century.


I have written elsewhere an initial analysis of the election results, from which the following main themes emerge;


1. Christina McAnea won a share of the vote fractionally below that gained by Dave Prentis in 2015 - our new General Secretary needs to reach out to supporters of other candidates if she is to build the strength of our trade union;


2. For the second time in succession our General Secretary has been elected without a majority of the vote - our Conference Standing Orders Committee should facilitate a debate about the merits of an alternative system of voting;


3. The disappointingly low turnout in the election did not significantly reverse the long term trend of declining participation in UNISON elections - increasing member participation will be a major challenge for UNISON activists and officials;


4. Paul Holmes gained the highest share of the vote of any rank and file candidate (and indeed of any defeated candidate) - driving the highest share of votes going to rank and file candidates in 20 years;


5. Holmes’ vote was more than four times that gained by the candidate backed by the Socialist Party, Hugo Pierre - destroying the threadbare justification advanced for he and his supporters having mounted his divisive campaign.


One aspect of the news about the General Secretary election, which has not yet been reported, concerns the numbers of complaints which have been upheld as a result of breaches of the election procedures.


Such breaches have been reported on this blog on more than one occasion.


In the last General Secretary election the outcome of investigations into complaints was published in the report of the Returning Officer and summarised in an Appendix, from which the reader could conclude that 30 complaints had been upheld.


Your blogger is aware, from correspondence with the Returning Officer, of more than 100 specific complaints having been upheld in relation to breaches of the election procedures in this election campaign, which sought to benefit the candidate Christina McAnea.


(As an aside, sources close to the campaign of Paul Holmes believe that no complaints of breaches by supporters of that campaign have been upheld.)


There have been no examples of such astonishing wrongdoing as was exposed in the Greater London Regional Office in 2015, when a staff meeting was misused by the former Regional Secretary as a campaign meeting for a particular candidate. 


It is, however, very disappointing, that after the previous General Secretary election led to a decision of the Assistant Certification Officer, following which (although there does not seem ever to have been the full, inclusive and transparent discussion that was warranted) UNISON reviewed and revised its election procedures - there have been so many instances of breaches of those election procedures, found by the Returning Officer.


The Assistant Certification Officer decided - in 2017 - not to order a rerun of the previous General Secretary election because the evidence suggested that the egregious malpractice sanctioned in the Greater London Regional Office was simply ineffective - and because there was not evidence of widespread malpractice.


It is perhaps likely - but not at all certain - that a similar outcome would now arise were complainants to pursue their complaints to the Certification Officer. This is a matter for the complainants to consider and upon which they will need to decide.


The fact that breaches of the election procedures found to have taken place in 2020 were in connection with misuse of UNISON’s online resources does not make these breaches less significant in an election which (thanks to the pandemic) largely took place on computer screens.


An important consideration for the Returning Officer (who has obviously already made this decision) and, hypothetically, for the Certification Officer (who has not yet been asked) is whether the large number of breaches of the election procedures found to have taken place could have influenced the result of the election.


The size of the majority of the winning candidate over the second placed candidate is one factor which will have been (and would be) taken into account - and it is therefore worth reminding ourselves of how the majority of the successful candidate in this election compares with that in previous elections for UNISON General Secretary;


Election

Winner

Second placed candidate

Majority

1995

Rodney Bickerstaffe

Peter Hunter

58,491

2000

Dave Prentis

Roger Bannister

54,563

2005

Dave Prentis

Roger Bannister

143,363

2010

Dave Prentis

Roger Bannister

102,700

2015

Dave Prentis

Heather Wakefield

30,722

2020

Christina McAnea

Paul Holmes

18,680


Under the relevant provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, complainants have six months in which to consider whether or not to bring complaints before the Certification Officer.


No doubt complainants will take various factors into account in making their decisions.


Will the trade union take seriously the need to address widespread breaches of our election procedures or will these be treated as dismissively as they were five years ago?

Friday, January 01, 2021

Looking back - and forward - with hope

 

This could have been the worst year just gone. It wasn’t just the global pandemic which took my father’s life. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and nearly dying of sepsis in 2019 I was told in 2020 that my cancer was now advanced and that there was a 50% likelihood that I would be dead within a very few years.


However, this was not at all the worst time of my life. On the contrary, I was happier than I have been in my adult life. I really appreciated the love of my partner (with whom I entered into a civil partnership), my children, wider family and friends. I also realised that I have every chance of making it to many more New Year’s Days - but (more importantly) that each day is to be enjoyed.


I hope that 2021 will be a year in which we can all renew our commitment to the struggle for socialism - and against those who would hold that struggle back, whether in our Party or our trade unions. Whether or not I will be around to see it (which, let’s face it, I probably won’t), I have no doubt in the bright socialist future of humanity.