Now -read the book!

Here is a link to my memoirs which, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can purchase online at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history.
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)

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Labour Briefing - Rest in Power



I am indebted to Mike Phipps and Labourhub for publishing my memories of involvement with Labour Briefing, alongside those of other comrades more centrally involved in the project over 40 years.

The occasion for our trip down memory lane was the news that the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) will no longer regularly be producing the magazine of which it took control 10 years ago. This would seem to be but one manifestation of a journey to the political margins which I only hope that LRC members will be able to reverse.


I won't repeat here what you can read elsewhere. However, in remembering the past of Labour Briefing I had cause to review past issues of the journal. Whilst the Labour Left is now (still) in a stronger position than at any time (before 2015) since the early 1980s (in spite of the best efforts of the witch hunters), looking back at Briefing in the late 80s and early 90s (at a time of equally vigorous witch hunting) it is obvious that we are not more advanced politically.


Our anti-imperialism was more clear-cut than it is now. Our support for equality was for collective struggles around liberation politics, not bogged down in a zero-sum game of identity politics. Our orientation to the Labour Party was principled and was also maintained by comrades who might themselves have been excluded or expelled, but who never thought that the struggle was primarily about themselves as individuals.


Somehow we managed to practice these politics retaining a sense of humour and being able to disagree whilst respecting each other's positions. No doubt the degeneration of the politics of the left reflects retreats and defeats in the material class struggle, from which the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership in 2015 could provide no more than a brief respite.


However, if socialists in the Labour Party are to make ourselves useful to future struggles we will need to recapture something of the spirit of Labour Briefing in the 1980s and 1990s and apply it afresh to meet the challenges of the 2020s and 2030s.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

How can Labour win?

 


Today I have completed a course of palliative radiotherapy on the secondary tumour in my upper right arm. I hope not only that this will reduce the pain I have been experiencing, but also that comrades will accept this as a good reason not to have been out and about campaigning in the run-up to today's local elections.


We do not, of course, have elections in Brighton and Hove today, although there is a by-election over in Rottingdean. Labour has an excellent local candidate with a firm base on which to build from the last local elections three years ago.


In those elections the headline news in Rottingdean was the triumph of an independent candidate who topped the poll and seemed to take votes exclusively from the Tories. However, Labour increased our share of the vote with a swing from the Tories of over 10%.


This time, with only one seat up for grabs in the ward right wing voters will not be able to split their votes between the Tories and the independent and will have to choose one or the other. This is the basis on which it is possible to hope that a good campaign in support of a good local candidate could deliver a truly phenomenal result for Labour.


If you had told me, more than 40 years ago when I joined the Labour party in Brighton that I might ever even speculate about a Labour Councillor in Rottingdean, I would've thought that you were mad. 


If that possibility is still perhaps a little remote, then I have to say that the very real likelihood of a Labour Council in Worthing is something that would have seemed equally absurd back in the 1980s.


Whilst there is no doubt the demographic changes arising from people moving out of Brighton and Hove and along the coast in each direction underpin Labour’s improved electoral performance elsewhere on the Sussex coast, there is a more immediate factor at work in accounting for the amazing change in Worthing, where we elected the first Labour Councillor since the 1970s only in 2017.


This was explained to my local party branch by a speaker from Worthing at a recent meeting. The party membership locally grew massively in both 2015 and 2016, around the two leadership elections, as local people joined the party to support Jeremy Corbyn in the elections. This gave the Labour Party the campaign resources to maximise the benefit of the increasingly favourable terrain within which they were campaigning.


Whereas, in Brighton and Hove, the emerging ascendancy of the left witnessed a vile backlash, culminating, though not ending, in the unjustified suspension of the City Party following untruthful allegations in 2016, in Worthing it seems that established party members were able to welcome new and returning members and have subsequently campaigned in a united and comradely fashion, increasing our representation on the council year-on-year until we are now on the brink of unprecedented success.


Whilst the different electoral fortunes of our Party in Brighton and Hove, when compared with Worthing, are best explained by the very different context (specifically the presence and rise of the Green Party, who are adept at appealing to voters to the right as well as the left), I don't doubt that we would have been, and would now be, in a better position if we were not as divided as we plainly have been and continue to be.


The Labour Party is - and always has been - a coalition of social democrats and democratic socialists (including Marxists such as myself) and if we are to be believed when we contend that we could provide good leadership locally or nationally the least we ought to be able to do is to get along with one another. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely both locally and nationally.


Encouraged by the victory of their chosen candidate in the leadership election two years ago, and enthused (somewhat mysteriously) by the spectacle of the uninspired and uninspiring national leadership with which we are now saddled, Labour’s right-wing, using their control of the party machine, have embarked upon an attack on all socialists which shows no sign of abating.


At a local and national level unjustified disciplinary action against left-wing activists is sadly all too common and numerous socialists are regrettably giving our unfortunate leadership what they want by leaving the Labour Party and wandering off into political irrelevance.


We should be able, overall, to improve upon the good results of the 2018 local elections because the Tory government is doing so much damage to itself. This will hardly be a vote of confidence in Labour's leadership but it will still be good news for all those who want a change of Government.


For my part, I shall be looking forward to hearing good results from comrades in Worthing not just because I rejoice in any progress for socialism in Sussex but also because it seems to me that they are showing the rest of us how to get along with each other and advance the interests of our party and our class.


Update on Friday, the 6th of May


I was overly pessimistic about the outcome of the Rottingdean by-election. Labour’s excellent candidate, Robert McIntosh, increased the Labour vote compared to 2019, beating the Independent candidate who had hoped to capitalise on the 2019 result by nearly a hundred votes. The Tories took third place which must mean some red faces above blue rosettes.


This campaign was a fine example of the local party pulling together and it's a positive sign going in to next years citywide local elections, which will of course be fought on new ward boundaries. 


Interestingly, the modest Green vote was down compared to 3 years ago, suggesting that next year we may hope to see a repeat of the decline in their vote which we saw last time there was a Green administration in the town hall.


Congratulations to Robert on achieving something I didn't expect to see in my lifetime! The local party across Brighton and Hove must draw the lesson that we should work together in unity and solidarity.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Twelve years ago on this blog - trade unionists must support our Labour Party though it does not support us



12 years ago to the day, I wrote a blog post here in the run-up to the 2010 General election in which, with a more or less heavy heart, I advocated support for Labour under the leadership of Gordon Brown.

After four General Elections, and four Labour leadership elections in the intervening 12 years we seem to be largely back where we started politically, except that, in spite of the fact that we are now more than a decade into Tory government rather than Labour government, we don't seem to be on the brink of ousting an incumbent Government.


The Conservative party, now in government, is deeply committed to attacking the interests of trade union members and working-class people in this country and throughout the world. Their policies and practices plumb new depths of reaction with every passing month.


Our Labour Party, following a brief period under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn when it seemed to be moving in the direction of the progressive policies long advocated by the trade unions, is now very firmly once more the would-be Second 11 for British capitalism, led by someone who makes Gordon Brown look like a charismatic populist.


Whereas under Blair and Brown, the party leadership were generally prepared to tolerate the presence of a small socialist left-wing within the party, as long as they could be sure it had very little influence, the current regime is in the midst of a brutal and absurd witchhunt of socialists intended to ensure that the threat of socialist leadership can never again arise within the UK Labour Party.


Trade unionists faced the same choice on polling day in May 2022 as we did in May 2010. In a small number of cases, would-be socialist alternatives to the Labour Party will stand and receive a derisory number of votes. Serious socialists will cast their vote for Labour against the Tories, now as we did then.


As long as the Labour Party is the party of the trade unions (even if, in practice, this generally means the party of the trade union bureaucracy) then the leadership will never succeed in eradicating the possibility of socialist politics, since this grows from the experience of rank-and-file trade union activism.


Trade unionists are part of a movement which is as large now as it was 12 years ago in spite of the sustained attacks of first the Coalition and then the Tories. We face legal shackles beyond the imagination of the movement I joined in the 1980s, but we are finding ways - and we will find ways - to shake off these chains in the future.


Socialists in the trade unions need to build our movement as a militant, politicised mass movement, the lack of which doomed the Corbyn project to failure. Such a movement would re-create the possibility of a socialist leadership for our party, as well as providing the extra Parliamentary support such a leadership would require. 


Equally, were the right wing of the party to have succeeded in eradicating socialism within the Labour Party (as I do not believe they will) then such a movement would provide a viable basis for creating a new answer to the crisis of representation of the working-class, such as does not exist at present.


This, I suppose, is what comrades in UNISON mean when they say it is "Time for Real Change". There is a lot of work ahead, and I am only sorry that I can't really expect to be part of it for too much longer.


Monday, April 25, 2022

Ten years ago on this blog - exposing today's UNISON hypocrites

10 years ago to the day I blogged here about the failure of our trade union satisfactorily to assess the equality impact of proposed settlement of the public sector pension dispute which had led, five months before, to the largest strike action of my working life.

I was at the time part of a recalcitrant minority fighting a hopeless rearguard action against the forthcoming settlement of those disputes on terms which I, and others, did not think were satisfactory. 


I thought then, and think now, that the failure of our movement to follow up the strike action on 30th of November 2011 with a further action on the same scale empowered the Coalition, and thereafter the Tory government, to continue its assault upon the living standards of our members.


Working together with a number of other comrades I had drafted a series of motions to the 2012 local government conference which were intended to constrain an unsatisfactory settlement of the dispute. These motions were generally unsuccessful, but the motion demanding the publication of an equality impact assessment ahead of any ballot on a proposed settlement was agreed (although, as is quite often the case, the conference decision was honoured rather more in the breach than in the observance).


Since the right-wing minority who are now critical of the new left-wing majority on UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) will - in the run-up to the forthcoming National Delegate Conference - be launching all manner of hypocritical and disingenuous attacks upon the majority of their colleagues, dishonestly alleging a lack of commitment to equality, I think it worth reflecting upon these events of 10 years ago.


During the three decades in which those who are now a minority on our NEC were a pliant majority, doing the bidding of the paid officials who ran the union, UNISON's commitment to equality was never really even skin deep. We can expect further venomous hypocrisy over the coming weeks and months as the forces of reaction try to regain control over our trade union. Don't believe the hype.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Unions must fight racist Government policy

The Tory government’s plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda is, of course, the most appalling racist dog whistle imaginable in the run-up to the May local elections.

It almost certainly isn't intended that this will ever actually happen, it is a device to hoover up racist votes whilst forcing the Labour opposition to choose between outright condemnation (which will please part of our political base but may not appeal to the mythical "white working class") and a feeble position of simply claiming that this racist policy, which has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, won't provide value for money.


As with all so-called “immigration and asylum” policies this initiative is also fundamentally dishonest.


The UK economy - and in particular the economy of London - relies upon the availability of a flexible pool of cheap labour provided by foreign workers who lack the documents to prove their rights to work in this country. 


In my years as a rank-and-file union organiser in London, I was, for example, aware of more than one occasion on which attempts to organise the workforce of privatised parking contracts in London boroughs were obstructed because a sizeable proportion of the workforce were working unlawfully with the knowledge of at least some of their management. This made organising that workforce extraordinarily difficult.


Undocumented workers cannot be eliminated from the London labour market, and never will be. No measures can prevent this pool, this "reserve army of labour" from being replenished. The utterly dishonest and hypocritical professed concern at the plight of those who are victims of "people smugglers" is a red herring.


The purpose of racist immigration and asylum policies is both to divide and rule the working-class and to provide a material basis for the super exploitation of the undocumented workforce.


All that having been said, the fact that an incumbent government is formally proposing a policy which in the 1970s would have been at home in the manifesto of the National Front is a remarkable and worrying, not to say frightening, development. 


The labour movement needs to adopt an uncompromising position of opposition to this racist policy, along the lines of the position of PCS. Other trade unions need to follow this lead and then to lead the Labour Party into a stronger position of opposition.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

Marching to the beat of a different drum

I've been on very many demonstrations since the late 1970s.

In particular I have marched against war. I marched against war in Iraq in 2003 when we were in a majority and I marched against war in the Falklands in 1982 when we were in a minority.


Unfortunately, I am not now well enough to attend a demonstration. There is however a demonstration taking place on Saturday which I don't think I would attend even if I were fit to do so.


Many trade unionists, including many whom I greatly respect, will be marching in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. They will be opposing the Russian invasion as well as calling for support for Ukrainian trade unions and for admission of Ukrainian refugees from the war into this country.


I agree with all those demands. However, it seems that only the last demand is one that can sensibly be placed upon the government of the United Kingdom, which is the only government likely to be influenced by a march through the streets of London.


It seems to me that those who have organised this demonstration have allowed their agenda to be set by a mass media which has focused upon atrocities committed upon white Europeans in a way in which it simply doesn't when similar atrocities occur elsewhere in the world.


Our trade union movement - unlike our establishment and ruling class - cannot be accused of hypocritically noticing the plight of the Ukrainians whilst having ignored the plight of the Palestinians. I have been on numerous trade union demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine, which have had a useful purpose of trying to put pressure on our government to influence its Israeli ally.


However, a Yemeni might well ask to trade unions who have organised Saturday's march where they have been for the last few years of bombardment from the Saudi led coalition.


There have been numerous wars around the world in recent years which do not seem to have aroused the media and to have led to such major mobilisations on our streets.


Socialists ought not to take their politics from watching the television (or the Internet) and deciding who the good guys and bad guys appear to be. When the Ukrainian trade unions are, quite understandably, calling for military aid to Ukraine, simply to march "in solidarity with Ukrainian trade unions" is hardly consistent with a long-term and principled opposition to the United Kingdom's leading role in the global arms trade. The more nuanced approach of the statement from the Time for Real Change group within UNISON is to be preferred.


Socialists and trade unionists ought not to support selling arms to Ukraine any more than to any other country on the planet. Socialists and trade unionists ought to stand against war whether that is popular or whether it is unpopular and a minority opinion at any particular point in time.


Wars do not begin when bad people start picking on good people. Wars are fought between capitalist nations over resources. They can also arise out of the competition between nations or blocs of nations, as the First World War arose when a small spark lit the tinderbox of competing imperialist powers.


There is no contradiction between condemning the appalling, brutal, murderous and unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine whilst at the same time understanding that there is a background to these events which, without doubt, includes the eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation over the past generation.


To comprehend a wider background, in international relations, to Russian aggression in 2022 is no more to excuse that aggression than an understanding of the role of the punitive terms of the Versailles agreement upon a defeated Germany in 1918 and its contribution to the rise of the Nazis amounts to excusing the Holocaust.


In circumstances in which Western Governments, whilst understandably unwilling to commit to the military defence of Ukraine, are using Putin’s invasion to whip up Russophobia, organising a mass demonstration in the way which is proposed amounts to providing cheerleaders for our own ruling class.


In time of war, as at any time, the task of socialists and trade unionists is to focus on the only war which we have to fight, which is the class war. The priority for trade unions in the United Kingdom should be fighting to defend the living standards of our members.


We should certainly demand access to the United Kingdom for refugees from the war in Ukraine, as we should make the same demand in respect of all refugees, regardless of the colour of their skin, because socialism stands for the interests of all workers across the world regardless of nationality.


What our movement should not do is march to someone else's drumbeat, particularly not when that involves taking sides in a war between different capitalist nations. Workers have no country and our job as socialists is to try to explain this in times when it may be easy and, even more so, in times when it may be very difficult.


We should be marching to the beat of a different drum.


Friday, March 25, 2022

Don't Invite Them In!

 


This is the last, for the time being, extract from my memoirs (which you can purchase at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history). This concerns a little remarked upon overlap between vampire lore and UNISON rules; 

“Anyone familiar with the legend of the vampire, as it has come down to us through 70s Hammer Horror films, will know that they cannot enter a house unless invited in. Under UNISON Rules (Rule G.9.1 for aficionados of the Rule Book), the same applies to Regional officials and UNISON Branches. A Regional official may (other than in certain specified and exceptional circumstances) only visit a UNISON Branch at the invitation of the branch. This is a rule which is now more often honoured in the breach than in the observance, as many branch activists do not pay sufficient attention to the Rules and believe that the paid officials have an authority over activists which they do not have.

It had always, however, been my practice, as Branch Secretary, to invite our Regional organiser to meetings of our Branch Committee. I’ve never felt that I have anything to hide from the paid officials of the trade union and, since there are many occasions on which a branch needs to call upon paid officials to do their job and support our membership I have found it useful to be able to point out to them, when requesting support, that they had been invited to the meeting at which we had agreed upon a course of action, whether or not they had been able to attend.

I had worked, over the years, with some excellent and committed Regional organisers (I would single out Greg Thomson and Lucille Thirlby as colleagues who became friends). By 2012 I had been working for some time alongside Stuart Barber, a very experienced official whom I respected but who did have something of a penchant for winding up left-wing members of the Branch Committee (and had a reputation for undermining left-wing Branch Secretaries elsewhere in London). In July of 2012 the patience of the Branch Committee had worn thin and, against my advice (and in Stuart’s absence) the Committee agreed to withdraw the standing invitation to our Regional organiser to attend the Committee.

The following month Stuart did not attend but the Region sent a more junior official (uninvited) whom the Committee agreed to admit to our meeting as a courtesy whilst objecting to the Regional Head of Local Government. The next month, September, Stuart turned up at the Town Hall to attend our Branch Committee and I had to come down to reception to explain to him that, as he wasn’t invited, he wouldn’t be admitted to the building.

Our insistence on asserting our right under Rule not to invite the Region to our Branch Committee became quite controversial and, at our November meeting we were visited by the Regional Secretary and Regional Head of Local Government (whom we invited in). I think they thought that the Lambeth Branch Committee would be a gaggle of newspaper-selling “trots” who they would lecture into good behaviour but they weren’t prepared for the measured and reasoned disappointment with the previous conduct of the Regional Organiser from a large and diverse body of ordinary shop stewards.

Having established our right (and that we were right) the branch resumed the practice of inviting our Regional organiser to our meetings (on a meeting by meeting basis).”

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Trade Union Bully Boy

 


Once again, here is an extract from my memoirs (which you can purchase at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history). 

This explains how I came to be described in the national press as a “Trade Union Bully Boy”;

“Contrary to the opinions of many who have reflected upon my actions, I was not particularly inebriated after the pensions strike. I had, after all, been looking after my son all day as well as organising the strike in Lambeth. By the time I got home to Brighton I was tired and went to bed quite early.

However, I woke up in the small hours and couldn’t get back to sleep. Unwisely (as it turned out) I thought I would send out an email to members of the Union in Lambeth thanking them for having taken strike action in such an impressive way. I was still on a high from the best strike day I had ever been part of.

As I drafted the email, my mind was taken back to several conversations which I had had with some of our best activists, both on the picket lines and the subsequent demonstration. “What”, they wanted to know, “could we do about the members who had not taken strike action?” These were a relatively small number, but their disloyalty greatly angered some of their colleagues - in particular when some of those who broke the strike were individuals who had been particularly demanding or critical of the trade union in the past.

The sort of person who will break a strike is, of course, very often the sort of worker who is not at all diligent, who gets into trouble at work and then blames everyone else for circumstances which they have likely brought upon themselves. I had tremendous sympathy for the anger felt by a good shop steward who saw someone they had done a lot to help waltz across a picket line. I knew however that there was no way in which UNISON could lawfully take any action against members who had broken the strike.

Therefore, knowing that my email would go to all members, I included some choice remarks addressed to those who had not supported the strike. I sent the email and went back to sleep.

The next morning, when I got to the office, I asked a couple of colleagues what they thought of the email. They said they thought it was ok - but then the phone rang.

An Assistant General Secretary of UNISON was on the other end of the phone. “What the f… have you done Rogers?”, she asked.

It transpired that one of our scabs had forwarded my email to Sky News, who had reported on it, with the Sun and the Daily Mail also picking up the story of the “trade union bully boy” who had threatened union members who had broken the strike.

Within a couple of hours I had, on “firm advice” from UNISON HQ, withdrawn my email in a follow up email to all members (as one of our Convenors remarked, this meant that everyone got to see what I had said all over again). Although I didn’t - and don’t - think that there was anything wrong with what I said, I did not want to cut across the work which UNISON was doing to get the best possible media coverage for our action at a time when it seemed possible that we would be taking further strike action in the near future.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Great White Elephant of the Euston Road

 


Just when you thought it might stop here is yet another extract from my memoirs (which you can purchase at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history). This concerns the UNISON Centre, a large erection on the Euston Road;

“The first half of my time on the UNISON NEC was (literally) overshadowed by the construction of the “New UNISON Centre” in the Euston Road. The decision to build the new headquarters building had been taken during my first term on the NEC, and I had voted to support the decision (indeed I think everyone voted in favour, although my fellow London NEC member, Fiona Monkman, a qualified architect, was not - as I recall - in the room when the vote was taken, and so escapes responsibility for the decision).

I was wrong to vote as I did. We all were.

The NEC was sold the decision on the basis that - although it would have been marginally cheaper to have refurbished the old NALGO headquarters in Mabledon Place - once the cost of having to relocate all the staff twice, rather than just once was taken into account it was a better deal to build the new headquarters. Over the following years the NEC would receive periodic reports of the gradual progress in implementing the decision, the acquisition of the site of the former Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) hospital (and the agreement to include in the site a museum commemorating that association), obtaining planning permission from Camden Council and - in 2010 - accepting the Finance Committee recommendation to retain the freehold of Mabledon Place, selling a lease in order to repay the loan which had been taken out from the Co-op Bank to finance the building.

UNISON officially moved into the building in 2011 and it was an improvement as a workplace on Mabledon Place. The ground floor included a cafeteria and a large atrium with walkways between the refurbished EGA Hospital building and the new offices above. The new building went up much higher, to a ninth floor Conference centre above an eighth floor “activist suite” including working space for members of the NEC and other national committees.

However, the building was much larger than we really needed, and the floors between the offices on the fourth floor and the (little used) activist suite on the eighth floor were kept empty for several years, a state of affairs about which I made a bit of a fuss as time went by (not least because I thought - and still think - that it is daft that UNISON pays rent of the first floor of Congress House to accommodate the staff of its Greater London Region when there has, for a decade now, been more than enough space at the UNISON Centre to make room for the Regional staff).

Eventually the empty floors were turned over to (occasional) use as training/meeting rooms, but the cost to the Union of the income foregone by not making use of expensive central London workplace accommodation over such a long period has never been calculated by UNISON (because it wouldn’t support the case against increased funding for branches which the Centre has consistently tried to make). As remote working and working from home become ever more common, the UNISON Centre will become ever more obviously an expensive white elephant.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Practical International Solidarity


 

In response to popular demand (from regular readers of this blog, Sid and Doris Blogger) here is another extract from my memoirs (which you can purchase at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history), an excursion into international solidarity work;

“January 2009 witnessed a particularly brutal episode in Israel’s periodic bombardments of the (effectively) imprisoned Palestinian population of Gaza - to which UNISON responded both nationally and locally. At the beginning of January there was a large national demonstration, which sticks in my memory largely for parenting failure on my part - I had failed to ensure that my (then) seven year old son, who came with me from Brighton to join the march was wearing enough layers and so had to requisition the branch banner to wrap him in!

Later in the month, following discussion at the Branch Committee, we secured the agreement of the Council for our shop stewards to take a collection, around all Council workplaces, for Medical Aid for Palestinians, which raised in excess of two thousand pounds.

Thanks in large part to our energetic International Officer, Gurmeet Khurana (who had been elected unopposed with the support of the “Lambeth activists”) the branch carried forward our solidarity with the Palestinian people beyond the episode of intense international attention that generally arises for a short period when Israel bombards Gaza.

That autumn we raised a further seven hundred pounds in a workplace collection for the Viva Palestina aid convoy and, thanks to a successful bid for funds from the national union which Gurmeet put together, in August of the following year Gurmeet and another of our shop stewards - Sahida Uddin - went to Nablus on the occupied West Bank to sign a twinning agreement between Lambeth UNISON and the Nablus branch of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

Lambeth UNISON’s association with the struggle for solidarity with the Palestinian people was also carried forward that year - at one step removed - by an illustrious former member of our branch (and former shop steward) Glyn Secker, who in May 2010, skippered one of the boats in the aid flotilla led by the Mavi Mamara, which was boarded unlawfully in international waters by the Israeli Defence Force.

Most of the international work of trade unions is, of necessity, undertaken at a national level between the bureaucratic structures of the respective organisations (because these have the  solidity and permanence to sustain those relationships) - lay activists are mostly involved as an ornamental addition. In my years of union activism I didn’t have the time or space to prioritise international work and, on the rare occasions when I did pay attention to it I advocated involving more rank and file workers. Lambeth’s twinning initiative with the PFGTU in Nablus was probably the only time when I was involved (however tangentially) in actually achieving this.

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that the flowering of local international solidarity activity at the level of our branch was about to be swamped by the tidal wave of redundancies which were, in 2009, just over the horizon - but at the time (and since) I have been proud of what we achieved at that time as a trade union branch.”

Monday, March 21, 2022

Democracy in UNISON

 

Continuing the series of extracts from my memoirs (which you can purchase at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history), here is a recollection of the debate about UNISON democracy back in 2008 during which it was confirmed that UNISON branches have the right to campaign against national recommendations in member ballot;

“Ten years after our 1998 Conference had agreed the motion which led to the first “Democracy in UNISON” guidelines a similarly titled motion had found its way on to the Preliminary Agenda for the 2008 Conference, in the name of the Scotland Region (which reminds me of something that my old friend, Croydon Branch Secretary Malcolm Campbell, used - with an admirable but wholly uncharacteristic lack of diplomacy - to say, which was that Scotland is a Nation, except in UNISON where it is a Region and in cricket where it isn’t even a minor county).

The motion had arisen from Scottish health branches who were angered at attempts to prevent them from making recommendations to their members in the ballot on the previous year’s national pay offer, in circumstances in which the national leadership (the Service Group Executive) had not themselves made a recommendation. I seized the opportunity to draft an amendment to a motion which was certain to be prioritised at Conference, and so Lambeth proposed an amendment which clearly restated the “the right of UNISON members, branches and other appropriate representative bodies to make and campaign within Rule for recommendations in member ballots.”

In preparation for what I felt would be an important Conference debate, I organised a meeting at the (then) University of London Union in Malet Street to coincide with an official UNISON briefing and invited London branches to attend. I made clear that this was a purely unofficial event, and that I had paid for the room booking out of my own pocket. However, that didn’t discourage the Regional Secretary from writing to me warning me not to go ahead with such “factional” activity.

At the risk of repeating myself, I should explain that - in UNISON - “factional” simply meant something the leadership/officials disagreed with (since it was never used to describe the majority faction of the NEC for example, nor “Team Dave” - of which more later). Anyway, I responded to the Regional Secretary by inviting her to attend the meeting, which she did - along with a couple of friends (well, associates)(at least people to sit next to her).

Because the main motion came from the Scottish Region (generally a mainstay of support for the leadership) the NEC had to agree to support it and, realising that they would have trouble defeating the Lambeth amendment the NEC majority agreed (in spite of my attempts at persuasion) to ask Lambeth to remit, on the basis that they would otherwise oppose the amendment (because, they said, UNISON members did not have the right to campaign to change policy…)

When Lambeth refused to remit our amendment, which the Scottish Region had agreed to support, my NEC colleagues chickened out of an argument and agreed to change policy on the amendment to “support with qualifications”. This is - and always has been - a device by which the NEC avoids defeat on the floor of Conference on a motion (or amendment) which it would prefer had never been written but which they know that Conference will pass whatever they say. Which it duly did. We won that round, but in the battle for democracy in UNISON there is no final victory - and no final defeat.”

Friday, March 18, 2022

A new hope...

 


Here is this week’s final extract from my memoirs, available at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history. This concerns a meeting called, almost 16 years ago, by the best leader our party never had;


“On the day after UNISON Conference 2006 I was called to an urgent meeting in London, in my capacity (at that time) as a member of the National Committee of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) (which was approaching its second birthday and third annual Conference).

This wasn’t an official meeting, and it was private (at the time). John McDonnell, who had called the meeting, explained that, whilst the Labour Party had no tradition of throwing out sitting Leaders, and wouldn’t throw out Tony Blair (as much as we might have wished it) it was nevertheless clear that Blair would be standing down.

In these circumstances, he thought it was necessary and important that someone from the left of the Party mounted a challenge for the leadership when Blair resigned. Although - as a result of a deal done more than a decade before - it was known that Gordon Brown would stand (and obvious to all that he would win) - it was essential, John felt, that the left should be able to rally round a candidate.

He pointed out that some preliminary work had been done to build up the organisation of the left in the Party, in Parliament and the trade unions. The LRC was developing, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs was getting better organised and - through campaigns such as “Public Services Not Private Profit” connections were being made with the left-led trade unions.

John felt that, if we sat out a leadership contest we would miss an opportunity to build from the modest plateau we had reached at this point - and that we would also leave the way open for another “left” challenger, who hadn’t been involved in trying to build organisation and didn’t have that perspective (this, it would turn out, was Michael Meacher MP).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the meeting consisted largely of people associated with the LRC and staff in John’s parliamentary office (such as Andrew Fisher and Owen Jones, both of whom would go on to become far better known than they then were) John’s willingness to stand as a candidate was met with great acclaim.

Those of us present understood the importance of the project of building the organisation of the left, in the Party, in Parliament and in the rank and file of the trade unions. We could see that having a candidate committed to this project standing for the leadership of the Party would be an opportunity to build up organisation to another level.

At this point, whilst we knew that there would be a vacancy for Labour Leader, we didn’t know when it would occur. Therefore we needed to prepare to launch John’s candidacy ahead of what would be a long campaign, the first phase of which would be to ensure that John was the undisputed challenger from the left.

It was evident that the forthcoming mass lobby of Parliament by the Public Services Not Private Profit Campaign would be an important  moment in launching the campaign.”

Thursday, March 17, 2022

A setback for bigotry

 


Here's yet another extract from my memoirs, available at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/an-obscure-footnote-in-trade-union-history.


This concerns a case which was one of the first in which an employment tribunal had to consider the interaction between the (then) recently passed legislation against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, and the (then) similarly recent legislation against religious discrimination;


“One weekday afternoon, around this time, I was walking down Albion Hill (the steepest hill in Brighton) when I got a telephone message from one of our shop stewards. She was very concerned about something she had seen the other shop steward in her building doing.

He was a new shop steward, having recently put his name forward for this position. I didn’t know him (I am not sure that I had met him at this point) but what I learned from his fellow shop steward (whom I knew to be a reliable activist) gave me some cause for concern.

It transpired that Mr Apelogun-Gabriels (whom I will break with the normal practice of these reminiscences and name since his name is already in the public domain in relation to this matter) had been permitted to set up a Christian prayer group at the office.

He had then copied a leaflet and distributed it, not only to colleagues who attended the prayer group but more widely throughout the office. His fellow shop steward saw a copy of the leaflet and found that it was a vicious homophobic tract, which she immediately advised him to cease distributing and destroy.

When he refused to do this she telephoned me as Branch Secretary to alert me to the problem. Not being at work, I had no immediate means of contacting Mr Apelogun-Gabriels. I knew what the Council would do (and thought that they would be justified in so doing).

I wasn’t wrong. The Council suspended Mr Apelogun-Gabriels, having received complaints from staff (some of whom were - quite properly - supported by his fellow UNISON shop steward in making the complaints).

I arranged to meet Mr Apelogun-Gabriels urgently and, shortly thereafter, met him on a day when I was caring for my young daughter, whom I sat at one end of the office with some pens and paper (and a swivel chair for entertainment) whilst I discussed the case with him.

He told me he felt that he was justified in publishing a leaflet which consisted entirely of extracts from the Bible (which it did) and, when I told him that - if he apologised sincerely - I thought we could get him off with a Final Warning, he refused to contemplate this.

I particularly recollect that, once he had left the office following our lengthy and difficult meeting my daughter summed things up well. “Daddy,” she said, “he was a very shouty man.” I agreed with her and took her for a pizza in Brixton.

Mr Apelogun-Gabriels subsequently decided that he did not want me to represent him as he could not be sure that I was heterosexual, so I referred him to our Regional Organiser. He wouldn’t take her advice any more than mine though, and the Council dismissed him.

I very rarely approve of any employer dismissing a worker, but this case was an exception - and I was pleased to learn that his employment tribunal claim for religious discrimination failed. Religion is no excuse for homophobia.”