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.
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