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)

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The critical decisions taken at UNISON Conference

I won't post here a comprehensive overview of UNISON National Delegate Conference, having already written a brief such overview for Labour Hub which you can read online here. This post isn't brief.

What I want to do here is look at some of the most controversial decisions, particularly those taken on the Tuesday afternoon of conference, and consider what they mean and how activists should respond to the fact that they were passed with large majorities.

I particularly want to stress to the reader that this blog post is addressed to all UNISON activists, and not simply to the small number of activists whom we have elected onto our National Executive Council (NEC). 

Too much is already being carried on too few pairs of shoulders and it is vitally important that activists, across all Regions and Service Groups, who want to see an effective, democratic trade union fighting for the interests of our members, network to broaden the base of rank and file organisation.

Much of the most important work for such networks of activists will not relate to the goings-on at National Delegate Conference (NDC) since, concerning pay and conditions, they are matters for the relevant Service Group, albeit networking at regional level within particularly the larger service groups may well be the most effective step to take in order to build up the level of national organisation which will be required.

Activists engaged in such rank-and-file organising needs not be fearful of threats from officials, such as we have seen many times in the past, for we know that the power to take or not to take disciplinary action against activists is now in the hands of NEC members who are sympathetic to the need for activists to organise and network in order to achieve UNISON goals.

Just as Marxists do not write "recipes for the cook-shops of the future", so it is not the place of a retired local government employee writing a blog to tell today's activists precisely how they should network and organise, although I do take the liberty of insisting that they must. 

The more effectively we can organise, and the more we can raise the level of struggle against the attacks upon our members’ standard of living, the more likely it will be that future conferences will be more sympathetic to socialist arguments, whether advanced from the floor or the platform.

All of that having been said, I will now turn my attention (as promised more than 300 words ago) to the particular decisions of National Delegate Conference which gave rise to such controversy, and indeed venom, and consider their meaning and how activists should respond.

Motion 10

The first such motion to be debated (Motion 10, titled "Not in our Name") came from the National Disabled Members Committee (NDMC). The National Executive Council had hoped to support an amendment to this motion but this had been ruled out of order by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) on the grounds that it was "a negative amendment”. In the absence of their preferred amendment, the NEC oppose the motion.

The main motion, coming as it did from the NDMC, picked out points of particular concern for disabled members (of whom, as diligent readers of this blog will note, your humble blogger is now one). 

The NDMC were concerned that the discretionary power of the NEC to allow an unemployed member to continue to hold office (a power which has been held by the UNISON NEC since 1993) placed at a comparative disadvantage a disabled member compelled to take medical retirement and therefore becoming a retired member in respect of whom no such discretionary power would exist.

The NDMC also felt that the exercise of such discretion in respect of an office holder within UNISON, given that disabled members are less likely to hold office, was also discriminatory against disabled members. 

You might feel, dear reader, that the NDMC might have chosen to call for disabled members forced into medical retirement to be given the same rights as other unemployed members, and might have called upon UNISON to do more to remove obstacles to disabled members holding office in our trade union. 

However, this disabled person can only observe that it was obviously more important for the NDMC, on this occasion, to make criticisms of the NEC than to make proposals to advance the interests of disabled members. Respecting self organisation as I do, I must accept that the NDMC believed it to be for the best for disabled members that they express these beliefs in the way in which they did.

On the basis of these beliefs, and the belief that various decisions of the NEC taken in October 2021 (all of which beliefs must be taken to have been shared by NDC in passing the motion, and therefore now to be UNISON policy) the NDMC made certain specific proposals which the NDC endorsed. Since these instructions are the specific decisions of Conference I will comment upon each in turn;

First, conference instructed the NEC to reverse all changes which had been implemented as a result of the resolutions passed in October and to commit not to implement those or similar resolutions in future without the support of a 2/3 majority at National Delegate Conference.

In its statement to conference on Friday, the NEC rightly committed itself to an urgent full review of NEC practices. It is to be hoped that this will enable our elected lay NEC to regularise its control over UNISON's affairs in accordance with Rule D.2.1 (and the many other rules which identify, specify and clarify the powers of the NEC). 

During my seven terms on our NEC I witnessed, on several occasions, the serious consequences of poor governance of our trade union by the NEC in the past. There was and is a compelling case for the NEC to be more assertive in relation to the governance of UNISON.

The solution to the controversy which has flown from the decisions of the NEC in October 2021 is to remove the need for those decisions by all parties recognising the shortcomings of the past and committing to working together to enable effective lay leadership of our trade union in accordance with our Rules.

Secondly, motion 10 instructed the NEC to bring any future resolutions which are "or which could be perceived to be" rule changes to NDC for a full debate by delegates before they are implemented. 

This does of course beg the question of whose perceptions are to be relied upon (particularly when the movers of the motion erroneously concluded that resolutions concerning NEC procedure amounted to amendments to rule when they did not).

It will also pose a challenge for the NEC if SOC continue to be as ready as they were this year to rule out of order entirely appropriate submissions to NDC from the NEC. An NEC motion calling for a review of the arrangements made for legal representation of UNISON members was ruled out on the grounds that the NEC had the power to do this anyway in accordance with Rule K and therefore it was not appropriate for the Conference agenda.

Given that the motion ruled out by SOC could very likely have been "perceived to be" a rule change by the mover of motion 10 there is probably a cautionary tale in here somewhere about adopting conference policy which is ambiguous.

The same note of caution may apply to the third instruction issued to the NEC by motion 10 which is that it should write to all Service Group Executives, National Self Organised Groups and other National Committees to confirm that in the future the NEC will always bring resolutions that are, or could be perceived to be, rule changes to national delegate conference. 

However, it will be a relatively simple matter for the NEC to send such a message. A cynic might observe that it won't be the first time that conference has instructed the NEC to do something that doesn't quite make sense, and they might be equally certain that it won't be the last.

The fourth specific instruction which motion 10 gave to the NEC is that they should contact all regional disabled members groups to reassure them of the NEC's support for self organisation and to commit to opposing any action that treats, or could be seen to treat, non-disabled members more favourably than disabled members.

This gives the NEC the opportunity to consider how to take the positive steps to promote the interests of disabled members for which the NDMC might have asked, but did not. For example, the NEC could consider how our rules might be either interpreted or amended to allow for the possibility that a disabled member compelled, against their wishes, to take medical retirement could be treated as, and/or given the same rights as, an unemployed member. 

Obviously the NEC would want to consult the NDMC on this matter, as they would before taking action to consult widely in the union to identify obstacles to disabled members holding office in our trade union, with a view to removing those obstacles. By focusing in a positive way on the interests of disabled members the NEC could move on constructively from the disagreements of last week, and the NDMC would have the opportunity to move forward with them.

The fifth and final instruction given by conference to our NEC when it passed motion 10 was that the NEC should write to the General Secretary, Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for equalities and the National Secretary for equality is to seek assurance that the Equality Liaison Committee will be included in the annual NEC meetings schedule so that future concerns can be raised directly with the chairs of NEC strategic committees in a timely manner.

This is an obviously sensible proposal. The Equality Liaison Committee should be as important within UNISON as the Service Group Liaison Committee and both of these committees, which in each each case provide an interface between leading members of the NEC and lay representatives of vitally important parts of the structure of a trade union, should provide an opportunity for an ongoing dialogue.

It has been a historic weakness of the organised left within UNISON that it has failed to make sufficient headway among many of the activists whose primary focus of activity is within our self organised groups, just as it has been a historic weakness of our self organised groups, in many cases, that they have been supportive of the UNISON machine and have contributed to a lay bulwark against necessary radical change. 

After last week, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that now is the very best time for us to try to overcome divisions between the self organised groups and left, but that is the time in which we are now living. Activists can certainly assist this process by engaging with and participating in self organised groups at branch, regional and national level.

Motion 11

The second - and most controversial - motion agreed on the Tuesday afternoon of UNISON conference was motion 11, proposed by four Irish branches and agreed on a card vote with the support of some 65% of the conference. This was a motion of "no-confidence" in the NEC which, in its preamble accused the NEC of being too concerned with divisive internal power play and of undermining the democratic rights of NDC and the democratic mandate of our first female General Secretary.

It was, of course, a tribute to the superior organisation of the supporters of this motion in the months before conference that so many delegates believed what the motion said and what they were told about the NEC, even though this also depended upon a shameful and vicious campaign of character assassination against the then President of UNISON, my friend, Paul Holmes. However the passage of the motion did not please its most energetic supporters once it became clear that the motion of no-confidence agreed at NDC did not lead automatically to the resignation of the NEC.

There were those, including some on the left and at least one member of the NEC, who thought that they should be the outcome of the agreement of Conference to motion 11. This approach however was - and is - hopelessly abstract and depended upon elevating form over substance. 

If UNISON existed in isolation, like some sort of giant social club, then it might make sense to suggest that the correct response to motion 11 would have been the resignation of the NEC. However, a trade union does not exist in isolation but only comes into existence as part of a continuing class struggle between labour and capital. Conference did not only agree motion 11, but agreed many other motions, several of them by a much larger majority, and many of which issued instructions to the NEC. 

The context within which NDC 2022 took place is of a cost of living crisis unprecedented in recent times. It would have been grotesquely irresponsible for the NEC collectively to absent themselves from their responsibility to provide leadership to our members as the struggle enters such a critical phase.

UNISON members will have the opportunity to elect a new NEC in the next round of NEC elections, which occur every two years. The collective accountability of the NEC to NDC does not empower NDC to dismiss the NEC, any more than the requirement of Rule E.3.1 that the General Secretary acts under the direction of the NEC would authorise the NEC to dismiss the General Secretary without good cause (and due process).

As importantly, the anger of some Conference delegates at the NEC does not overwrite, and cannot overrule, the anger of UNISON members at our collective failure to protect their living standards over recent years, which is what led to the results of the 2021 NEC elections. 

The NEC statement in response to motion 11 rightly commits to reviewing all Conference decisions, with the General Secretary in order to implement the decisions of the sovereign body of our trade union. Activists at branch level can contribute to this process by ourselves taking forward Conference decisions, for example in relation to the cost of living crisis, in order to raise both the organisation and the combativity of our membership at a critical time.

Motion 9

The third motion critical of the NEC agreed on the Tuesday afternoon of conference was one which the NEC itself supported, albeit with qualifications about the factual accuracy of some of the preamble in the motion. This was motion 9 from the National Black Members Committee (NBMC) which dealt with Fair Representation.

The motion criticised the NEC for having elected an all white Presidential team, for having failed to elect any Black chairs or vice chairs of committees and for choosing a delegation to the TUC general council which was all white. Only the first of these three criticisms was entirely correct (and the same criticism could have been made of the previous Presidential team).

However, the instructions which motion 9 gave to the NEC, which were to pay full attention to the Rule book requirement for fair representation in the future, and to take measures to prevent the problems identified in the motion from happening again, with a report back on actions taken to next year's NDC, were such instructions as the NEC could obviously support.

Fair representation, particularly in relation to race, is a founding principle of our trade union. Racism has been central to the development of capitalism for centuries, and the struggle against racism is therefore central to the building of a working-class movement. The struggle against racism must necessarily be led by the victims of racism, and therefore the self organisation of Black workers is essential for effective trade unionism.

Fair representation can help to ensure that Black workers, who are more likely than white workers to be trade union members, are represented in leading positions in proportion to the race profile of the membership. Of course, fair representation in isolation from self organisation can just mean a white dominated organisation choosing some Black faces to be among its leadership, rather than genuine Black leadership of the struggle (as we can see in many employing organisations where Black senior managers do not necessarily contribute to the fight against institutional racism).

The review of NEC practices to which the NEC has committed in its statement to Conference on Friday of last week will include a more representative make up of NEC elected roles, a goal towards which the NEC began to move with the election of the new Presidential Team even before the statement had been drafted. Activists in branches and regions can contribute to this process by ensuring in elections at all levels of our union that Black workers are represented, working with Black members self organisation to help to ensure that this leads to representative Black leadership in UNISON.

There is a material basis for a strategic alliance between the left in UNISON and the Black members self organised group. Over a number of years, Black members have expressed concerns about the decisions made in relation to legal representation of UNISON members. It is only the NEC elected in 2021 which has committed to the review of these arrangements which may enable us to address those concerns.

Fair representation, even on its own, is important. It is however even more important that UNISON should pay attention to the views of our members’ self organised groups if we are effectively to confront the various forms of oppression which so many of our members face. 

What matters most of all is what UNISON does.


The challenge confronting our NEC following conference week is to take the criticisms which were made, and to extract from the hard shell of reactionary hostility, the kernel of valid and legitimate concerns in order to address these and to build a productive partnership with those critics who made their criticisms genuinely and out of concern for UNISON. 

The challenge confronting activists in branches and regions is to redouble our efforts to organise at a rank-and-file level in order to strengthen UNISON for the coming fight over pay, but also for all the many campaigns prioritised at Conference.

We have an NEC which is on the side of rank-and-file members and does not wish to place bureaucratic obstacles in our way when we need to engage in struggle. Given the better than expected turnout on the TUC demonstration on Saturday there is every reason to believe that, whilst we have a mountain to climb, we can reach base camp and begin that ascent.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Much of what happened at UNISON Conference happened before UNISON Conference.

Sun Tzu said that "every battle is either won or lost before it is fought".

This was, I think, true of several important debates at UNISON's National Delegate Conference held last week in Brighton.

Whilst UNISON members are facing a "cost-of-living crisis" without recent precedent, and need our trade union to focus on the interests of working people, our Conference seemed, at times, much more interested in internal disputes.

Of course, disagreements within a trade union are absolutely something which should be a feature of a democratic trade union conference. I have complained here often enough about how dissent and disagreement has been eliminated from UNISON Conference over the years.

A quarter of a century ago UNISON Conference frequently witnessed vigorous debate, whether over issues of internal democracy (such as the debate about the election of Regional Secretaries in 1996 and 1997) or over campaigning questions (such as the debate about whether or not to call a national demonstration in support of a higher rate for the, then, new National Minimum Wage at Conference 1998).

In those days, the contest was between a majority right wing (or as they would probably have preferred “centre-left”) National Executive Council (NEC), who exercised only the lightest touch of oversight over the paid officials who administered, and therefore ran, the Union, on the one hand, and a (very slightly) "organised left”, with influence in some Regions and a number of branches, who “punched way above our weight” at Conference, on the other.

I remember, on one occasion, our former General Secretary, the late Rodney Bickerstaffe, complaining to me that we could not use our annual Conference to promote our trade union positively because, "people like you come to Conference for an argument”. I was, of course, guilty as charged, as were a great number of friends and comrades on the left.

However, when we criticised the leadership of our trade union at that time we did so, first of all, because we felt that they were selling our members short, and we therefore tried to push them to fight harder. Secondly, we believed that we should increase democracy in our trade union in order to make for more effective leadership in the long run.

An opportunity presented itself to the leadership to begin to sanitise Conference when a complaint to the Certification Officer about the ruling out of order, by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) of motions to National Delegate Conference concerning UNISON's political fund led to a decision that the Certification Officer had no jurisdiction over SOC decisions.

This decision gave the SOC carte blanche to rule out of order motions which, on any fair and reasonable reading of the UNISON Rule Book, should've been ruled in order (and, as we did not anticipate at the time, but saw in 2022, to allow onto the Conference agenda motions which were patently out of order). Conference cannot overrule SOC, and could only be empowered so to do by a Rule Amendment, which SOC would have to approve.

Because of the way SOC is elected (one from each of 12 Regional Councils, elected a year in advance, plus 3 NEC members) it is inherently vulnerable to institutional capture and influence by the paid officials upon whom it depends entirely for legal advice. 

I remember, for example, on one occasion, when SOC ruled out of order a motion that UNISON should support the "Public Services not Private Profit" campaign initiated by PCS and John McDonnell MP, they did so on the grounds that this was a matter which could only be dealt with through our political fund and was not therefore appropriate for National Delegate Conference (in accordance with Rule J).

They made this ruling on the basis of advice from a senior UNISON official that PCS had funded their support for the campaign from their political fund. However, at the relevant time, PCS did not have a political fund, as the well-informed senior official who gave that advice must (or, at least, certainly should) have known. 

SOC, not unreasonably, believed the advice that they were given and disbelieved the truth. Had anyone tried to complain about the conduct of the official they would have been accused of bullying a member of staff, and would have faced a disciplinary investigation.

With this freedom of action, the SOC, reflecting the interests of the UNISON machine, gradually and incrementally restricted the areas of permissible debate within our trade union.

At the same time, the prioritisation process, which had been introduced to bring some logic and legitimacy to the ordering of the Conference agenda, and which is entirely under the control of SOC, has become a further tool to control the agenda. 

Although the largest element contributing to the prioritisation of motions and rule amendments on the preliminary agenda for National Delegate Conference, is provided by the priorities expressed in each Region, and although these priorities notionally reflect the opinions of branches in the Region, the reality is that the priorities expressed by a Region are easily influenced by the Regional Office.

The request for branches to express their views about prioritisation, at least in the Greater London Region, was often sent out along with many other circulars, and was easily missed by those Branch Secretaries who were busy fighting to defend the interests of their members. Other branches, involved in less conflict with their employer and more reliant for support from Regional officials, benefited from a greater likelihood of being reminded, in a timely way, to return their priorities (with the added benefit of guidance from the official on what their priorities might be).

I remember one year, when the Greater London Regional Council was still solidly on the left, and the North-West Region were allies of the leadership, the North-West regional conference bulletin was provided with the details of the motions prioritised by branches in the Greater London Region (which details could only have been provided by a paid official or a member of SOC), and made great play of the fact that the radical motions submitted by the Regional Council were not amongst those.

Whilst we in Greater London corrected this in future years, by agreeing that Regional Council motions would automatically attract our top two priorities, what was most revealing was just how few branches had contributed to prioritisation. Although the left tried in future years to influence the prioritisation process in an organised way, we have never had anything like the capacity of the machine to influence the process.

Too many left-led branches are too busy with the day-to-day struggle to pay sufficient attention to the niceties of conference preparation, and there are too many of the other type of branches who are only too happy to accept the tutelage of Regional officials.

Over a period of 20 years, using the twin tools of the power to rule motions out of order and the prioritisation process, the SOC was able, in the past, to turn UNISON National Delegate Conference into an event almost entirely devoid of actual debate, in which what was described as "debate" consisted of a series of speakers getting up and "testifying" in agreement with each other.

 All this began to change with the outcome of the 2020 General secretary election, Christina McAnea was successful, but Paul Holmes outperformed all previous rank-and-file candidates. In the run-up to the 2021 NEC elections supporters of Paul's General Secretary campaign organised an effective slate of candidates under the banner of "Time for Real Change”.

Foreseeing the peril in which this placed UNISON's Ancien Regime, the newly elected General Secretary pulled out all the stops to encourage members to vote in the NEC elections. This was entirely proper of course. However, asking members to vote so that "those who shout loudest" are not those who are heard is such an opaque and ambiguous formulation that it only really has any meaning if it is understood as a dog whistle to those on the right (or as they invariably prefer, the “centre-left") to mobilise to vote against the insurgent left-wing candidates.

The candidates standing under the banner of "Time for Real Change" won a majority of seats on the NEC. They therefore began trying to implement the policies which they had set out when they stood for election. Upon encountering various difficulties in this endeavour, they attempted, at the October meeting of the NEC to agree a series of resolutions affirming the authority of the lay NEC. This provoked an ongoing controversy.

In preparation for the first in-person conference in three years the machine was able to mobilise delegates who would be supportive of their position, by way of their control of 1000 paid staff, and found that the tools of the Standing Orders Committee, including the prioritisation process, which had been developed to sanitise conference and remove controversy under the previous leadership, could now be turned to good use in ensuring that Conference would provide repeated opportunities for attacks upon the left-wing NEC.

In this way, the stage was set for a series of debates which were intended not only to ensure that the NEC could make no positive progress, but also to break the will and spirit of relatively inexperienced new NEC members, not least by way of an unremitting tide of hostility directed at UNISON's President Paul Holmes.

In a further post I will examine the Conference decisions and their implications, as well as those decisions which did not go according to plan.


Saturday, June 18, 2022

Having the time of my life (in accordance with UNISON Rule C.2.7)

Having been invited in to UNISON National Delegate Conference to give the vote of thanks to President Paul Holmes, I was then presented with honorary life membership (in accordance with Rule C.2.7) by the then Vice President, now our President, Andrea Egan.

This was an unexpected honour, and I am grateful to the comrades in the Lambeth branch and on the National Executive Council who made this happen. In particular, I would like to thank Simon Hannah and Jocelyn Cruywagen, Branch Secretaries in Lambeth, and Branch Chair Ruth Cashman, and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Development and Organisation Committee, of the NEC, Andrea Egan and John Jones.

I am also grateful to the General Secretary Christina McAnea, and the other officers who I know will have worked hard for this outcome.

It just goes to show that there are no hard feelings simply because I spent so many years in UNISON causing trouble for the then leadership, successfully took the union to the Certification Officer to expose wrongdoing by a former Regional Secretary (now long departed), and had approximately 100 complaints upheld by the Returning Officer in respect of breaches of election procedures by supporters of the successful candidate in the last General Secretary election.

Given my state of health, I may not be able to enjoy my honorary life membership for as long as I would like (which reminds me of what I once said to a scab crossing a picket line whose excuse was to say "I'm only temporary”. “We are all only temporary," I replied, "but that's no excuse to cross my picket line.”) 

However, given the encouragement of this award of life membership, I will do my best to pay attention to developments in our trade union for as long as I am able. I may very well pass comment here from time to time, which I am sure is something that will be welcomed by all those on the Euston Road…

I was proud to serve on the NEC for 14 years, on the Greater London Regional Committee for 20 years, to represent UNISON nine times at the annual Trade Union Congress and, most of all to have been branch secretary of the wonderful Lambeth branch for 25 years. It was the last of these that was the honour of my life, as representing the workers of Lambeth is a unique, challenging and rewarding experience.

Following the award, friends from Lambeth joined me in front of the platform, and you can see in the picture, on my right, Juliet Blake, our long-serving Branch Administrator and Nick Venedi, my brother and former Branch Secretary whom I worked alongside for 20 years.

To my left stands our illustrious former Branch Chair, and now elected representative of pensioners on Lambeth’s Pensions Committee, Peter Woodward and our Branch Equality Officer, but also (and, to me, much more importantly) my partner, my love and my life, Hassina Malik.

In the middle, of course, stands your (not so) humble blogger, wearing two sets of conference credentials (one as a visitor and one as a guest) in order to attempt to misbehave to the very last.

Vote of thanks to Paul Holmes

(I will, over the next few days, try to catch up with some posts about the goings on in the Brighton Centre this week. However, I won't be posting in chronological order because this is my blog and I write what I want on it. If you think that's wrong go away and write your own blog.)

This is, roughly, what I said at UNISON National Delegate Conference yesterday afternoon following the close of conference business, having been invited in as a guest to say a few words by way of thanks to the outgoing President of UNISON, my friend, Paul Holmes;

Denis Healey said that all political leaders should have a hinterland; interests beyond and outside their everyday political activity. 

Paul’s hinterland includes his passionate support for Featherstone Rovers rugby league club, known as “the flat cappers”, or, simply, “Fev”. 

Just like Paul, “Fev” come from somewhere in Yorkshire you probably haven't heard of, are frequently underestimated and perform well in excess of what is expected from them. 

Paul is also a great fan of Bob Dylan, whom he has seen perform live 150 times. 

Bob Dylan, of course, knew when the times they were a-changing, just as Paul knows when it's time for real change in our union.

Probably the only people Paul feels more for than he feels for Bob Dylan and Featherstone Rovers are his daughters, Greta and Anna, of both of whom I know he is incredibly proud.

Paul is a good, kind and thoughtful friend. I can vouch for the fact that he even forgives friends who screw up in ways which might have cost him quite a lot of money. Paul is also well-read and I find that a conversation with Paul is always informative leaving me with something to think about. 

However, comrades I am not simply here to tell you about what a good bloke my mate Paul Holmes is. I am here to give thanks to the President of UNISON.

Paul, your presidency is important not just for the tremendous work that you have done for our trade union in the past year and in all the previous years, but because of what it signifies about UNISON’s coming of age in its 30th year.

You have been President in the face of victimisation from a reactionary employer and unjustified attacks from within our own movement. 

Your presidency brings to an end a time in which socialist activists could be targeted not only by employers, but sometimes from within UNISON.

In thanking you, I am therefore also thanking many others whose struggles over many years helped to bring us to this point. I couldn't possibly name them all, but you wouldn't forgive me if I didn't mention our dear friend and former NEC member Bernie Gallagher. 

Other comrades who are now retired, or have left UNISON, include Caroline Bedale, Alan Docherty, Helen Jenner, Mike Tucker, Tony Staunton, Yunus Bahksh, Glenn Kelly and Onay Kasab.

Your Presidency has been a great collective achievement. However, no one else could have assumed the presidency as you did, when you did, to start to drive through the changes for which so many of us have fought for so many years.

Paul, by standing up to vitriolic personal attacks from people who are so much smaller than you that I can barely see them, by putting your trade union before yourself as you have done for decades and because of your courage, tenacity and determination, you have been the President that UNISON has needed at this critical time.

I am proud that you are my friend, and I'm honoured to have had this opportunity to thank you for being our President.

I started with a reference to Dennis Healy, which, as anyone who's heard me speak before would realise is quite unusual, as he was never quite on my wavelength within the Labour party, although I did once appear alongside him a comedy gig (but that's another story…) I will therefore leave you with some words from Tony Benn;

“there is no final victory and no final defeat. There is just the same battle to be fought over and over and over again." 

I think that's an appropriate epitaph for any UNISON conference.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

UNISON moving forward after a difficult and damaging afternoon

After a
positive start to UNISON National Delegate Conference yesterday morning, I'm not sorry that my health precluded my hanging around to watching person the bear garden that was Tuesday afternoon.

I have, however, had the benefit of detailed reports of the contributions made in debate on the ill informed motions 10 and 11, which attacked our left-wing NEC. The movers were fortunate that their motions had made it past the standing orders committee (SOC), though perhaps they were entitled to expect such good fortune from an SOC which is now more openly partisan against the left than at any time in my membership of UNISON.

Whereas the directly elected NEC has shifted to the left, reflecting the anger and disillusionment of our most active members at the failure of our trade union effectively to resist austerity, the indirectly elected SOC has not experienced any such change. Motions of questionable propriety attacking the NEC have therefore found an easy passage onto the conference agenda, whilst an entirely reasonable proposal from the NEC to invite the conference to consider the need for a review of their arrangements for legal representation was ruled out of order by SOC, on the bizarre grounds that the NEC should carry out this review itself without asking Conference.

Therefore according to our SOC Rule K precludes Conference instructing or even debating how the NEC should use its power in relation to legal assistance, but a motion which attacks the NEC for trying to exercise its power to seek legal advice independently of the UNISON machine is absolutely in order. 

UNISON’s NEC obviously cannot criticise our SOC, but a retired member with a Blog can observe that SOC are absolutely failing in their duty under Rule P.2.3 and are allowing themselves, quite transparently, to be a tool of reactionary elements in the UNISON machine who are fighting a ferocious rearguard action to try to reverse the results of last year's NEC elections.

With the slight advantage over our elected NEC of having 1000 paid staff at their disposal, those who are offended that our members have elected a leadership that does not want to get in their way when they want to fight clearly did a good job of organising in the run-up to conference.

First they told and repeated the lie that decisions taken by NEC in October of last year somehow breached or amended our rules. A lie can, of course, get halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, and, in this case, the lie had carried the day very swiftly in many branches and a number of Regional Councils. 

Obviously this was always nonsense. If the General Secretary had for one moment thought that the NEC had taken an action which was genuinely ultra vires she would've acted in ways which she obviously did not. That was never the point. This issue was seized upon by supporters of UNISON's Ancien Regime as a stick with which to beat a new, and relatively inexperienced, NEC at its first annual Conference.

The bludgeons to be used were speeches written, in large part, by paid officials and handed out to delegates, some of whom genuinely believed they were righting a wrong but many of whom knew full well the dishonesty of their actions. Vicious redbaiting reminiscent of the worst of past UNISON witchhunts was accompanied by a toxic undercurrent of personal attacks on the President in particular.

In order to understand the particular venom directed at Paul Holmes from the right wing within UNISON it is necessary to understand a little history. Only the most naive would believe for a moment that these attacks are motivated by any genuine concern for alleged “victims" in Kirklees, whose testimony has been sought out and organised by a hostile employer.

In the old days in UNISON a troublesome left-wing activist could expect to find themselves caught in a pincer movement between UNISON disciplinary action and an attack from their employer. The case of Yunus Bakhsh springs to mind for example.  The former leadership of our trade union thought nothing of the appearance of collusion with a hostile employer as long as the individual being dismissed, and eliminated from UNISON, was one of their left-wing critics.

The fact that the new NEC used a power which has been held by every UNISON NEC since the 1st of July 1993 to allow Paul Holmes to retain his UNISON positions, to which he had been elected by UNISON members, in spite of his unfair dismissal by Kirklees Council, has outraged the old right wing in UNISON. They presumably see it as "cheating" thereby to frustrate their time honoured tactic of getting their opponents sacked by the bosses in order to get them out of their way in UNISON.

This alone is quite enough to explain the ratcheting up of the campaign of character assassination and personal vilification against Paul which has been a feature of UNISON for at least the past decade.

Speakers against Motions 10 and 11 generally adopted a reasoned and restrained approach, relying upon persuasion and expressed in a comradely fashion. This simply could not compete with the venom of a prearranged assault upon the NEC organised by those for whom it is more important that they should win an internal battle at the cost of great damage to UNISON than that UNISON should be able to focus its energy and attention on the issues of concern to our members.

As well as preparing to field candidates in every single constituency in the next NEC elections, comrades on the left will also need to pay attention to organising ahead of Regional Councils and forthcoming Conferences in order to avoid such ambushes in future. The right wing and elements within the the machine are at war with us, and we must respond in an organised, effective and robust fashion.

UNISON members who wonder what it means that National Delegate Conference has passed Motions 10 and 11 should know that there is an established process for the NEC to consider and act upon decisions of National Delegate Conference. Having served seven terms on the NEC I am very familiar with this process.

A report should be presented to the next full NEC meeting after Conference listing all Conference decisions and making preliminary recommendations as to which NEC Committee each decision should be referred to.

The relevant committees should then consider the decisions at their next meeting and make recommendations for action back to the NEC.

This has been the approach for many years. Indeed it was explained to me five years before I was ever elected to the NEC by our illustrious former president, Rita Donaghy, after Conference instructed the NEC immediately to cancel the contract signed with Capita for the pilot project of what became UNISON Direct in 1998.

No doubt the NEC will adopt this approach to the decisions taken by conference in passing motions 10 and 11, alongside all the other decisions which conference will hopefully take during the week relating to the cost of living crisis and the other major issues confronting our members in their workplaces and communities.

Leading members of our NEC cannot and will not climb into the gutter from which they are being attacked. However, supporters of the left-wing within the rank and file of UNISON, or even a retired member with a Blog, need not be so fastidious. 

Right-wing members of the NEC who supported attempted disruption of our Conference yesterday morning, and those who led the charge against the NEC yesterday afternoon although they knew it was based on lies, should remember that people who live in glasshouses ought not to throw stones.