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)

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Farewell Roger Lewis (01/06/62-22/11/22)

Roger speaking in 2016

Our movement has lost a bright star. Roger Lewis, secretary of Lambeth Council’s joint trade unions has died an untimely death at the age of only 60. Roger's loss will be felt not only amongst the workforce of Lambeth Council but much more widely throughout UNISON and the labour movement, and will be felt particularly brutally by those campaigning for the rights of disabled workers. 

I have known Roger as a committed socialist and trade union activist for more than 30 years. Roger arrived to work in Lambeth Council in 1987, a young and enthusiastic socialist in his mid 20s. He worked in social services day centres where he rapidly became a leading shop steward for a group of workers who were often treated badly by managers whilst delivering vital services to a vulnerable client group.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s when strike action was still a frequent feature of a trade union life, Roger was a reliable and stalwart picket as well as developing as an experienced and effective caseworker representing individual trade unionists facing difficulties in the workplace. 

I remember Roger outside the Town Hall, protesting against cuts and the poll-tax, supporting the advice centre and youth centre occupations and demonstrating against the Gulf War. I also remember Roger as part of a group of twentysomethings having our first drink at the newly opened Wetherspoons pub in Brixton (!)

Roger was one of a number of our shop stewards at that time who was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and, whilst that meant we did not always see eye to eye on every dot and comma of our politics, as a left-wing Branch Secretary I knew I could rely upon Roger and his comrades when the chips were down.

Though sensible managers respected Roger as a diligent and effective shop steward, some of his local managers were not in that category. In 2005 a hostile local manager seized upon a malicious complaint to try to secure Roger’s dismissal. With the support of his legendary UNISON Convenor, Jackie Lewis, Roger fought off this vicious attack.

However, in a cruel twist of fate, at the same time, Roger who was already suffering with arthritis, found that a degenerative condition was costing him his sight. Once more, local management tried to get rid of Roger on the grounds that he could not carry out his duties. Roger and his trade union branch fought back and won.

Not only did Roger retain his employment as he lost his sight but he took on a new role and, from then onwards, as well as continuing to be a leading trade union activist, Roger played a vital role in developing Lambeth’s service provision for disabled people locally. In a short blog post I cannot possibly do justice to the many ways in which Roger contributed to our society. There will I'm sure be others who can say much more.

Such was Roger's courage and determination as he faced acquiring a life changing disability in mid-life that he was not distracted from his commitment to the class struggle. On the contrary, Roger acquired a renewed focus and rapidly became a key figure in UNISON's Disabled Member’s Self Organised Group in the branch and beyond. 

When the Coalition Government launched its savage attack upon public services and our welfare state, Roger was to the fore in organising Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) an organisation to which Roger gave his persistence and commitment, and through which he became a nationally known figure.

As Roger became an increasingly common sight, with a megaphone or on a platform outside Parliament or on a demonstration, he remained a fully committed member of his union branch and continued his valuable work for the Council. When my retirement from UNISON roles in 2017 created various vacancies, Roger stepped up to take on the challenging role of Secretary of the Joint Trade Unions for Lambeth Council.

This involved the vital and often thankless task of building and maintaining unity between the different trade unions while leading negotiations with the Council over a period during which it repeatedly and determinedly demolished its own Human Resources function. The workers of Lambeth Council enjoy decent conditions of service and broadly fair staffing procedures, and for the past five years Roger Lewis, more than anyone else, mobilised our collective organisation to defend those rights.

I had hoped to see Roger last month when he was in Brighton representing Lambeth at UNISON's National Disabled Members Conference. Characteristically, however, when I was unable to get out in the evening, Roger couldn't meet at the end of the Conference as he had to get back to Lambeth for a work commitment. I have no doubt that right up until Roger was taken into hospital having had a heart attack last Friday, he was working hard for our class and our movement. I cannot describe the anger I feel that someone who did as much as any of us to defend our pensions from successive attacks will not have enjoyed a single day of retirement.

I have known and represented a very great number of trade unionists and trade union activists. Roger Lewis shines out in my memory for his courage, commitment and determination. If he could inspire an old cynic who is writing this blog I can only imagine the inspiration which his example will continue to offer to so many comrades for so long.

Farewell Roger and thank you for your comradeship.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Labour disciplinarians out of control?

What follows is the text of a post which I wrote for the excellent LabourHub Blog following the alarming news that the Labour Party membership of UNISON President Andrea Egan had been terminated;

Just when you think that the unjustified administrative and disciplinary action being taken against socialists in Starmer’s Labour Party has reached its nadir, the adolescent Blairites in charge of the Party’s bureaucratic machine excel themselves once more.

The latest outrage from party headquarters (whereever that is) is the termination of the membership of the elected president of the U.K.'s largest trade union, UNISON. Andrea Egan because she posted links to two articles in the journal “Socialist Appeal”, published by an organisation which has been prescribed by the NEC.

The rules of the Labour Party (disgracefully) permit the termination of a member’s membership in such circumstances without any right to a hearing (although a hearing is possible, after the membership has been terminated, if the former member submits an appeal and waits for many months for it to be heard).

This means that a member can be thrown out of the party for linking to an article published in a little-read journal, which was created some 30 years ago precisely to argue that socialists should be in the Labour Party and vote Labour, and the obvious injustice of this action cannot even be tested in a hearing for months and months.

If on the other hand a member posts a link to an article from a Tory newspaper, or a right-wing journal such as the Spectator, they will face no action. There is no objectivity or fairness in Labour's disciplinary process, indeed the very obvious and deliberate unfairness, which achieves the voluntary departure of many socialists from the Party, is really the whole point.

It won't have been an accident that the latest victim of injustice is UNISON's President. This is plainly a deliberate and audacious attempt to show just how little respect the party machine and leadership have for the trade unions in general and active rank-and-file trade union members in particular. This sends a message not only to the hard left in parliament and beyond, but to soft left MPs who might want to show their trade union affiliations in ways of which the leadership disapproves.

Starmer and his allies are preparing for a Labour Government which may have to go to war with the trade unions in order to implement a watered down version of Tory austerity (which is what you believe to be responsible progressive politics if you are Rachel Reeves or Wes Streeting). A deliberate offence to the lay leadership of the largest trade union is a good start from this point of view.

The only other people who will welcome this absurd attack upon a decent and committed socialist trade union activist will be those trade unionists who are desperate to encourage the exodus of socialists from the Labour Party in the forlorn hope that for the first time in more than a century this will lead to the creation of a new mass party of the working class (spoiler alert: it won’t).

It would, however, be much too simplistic to see this as simply a conflict between the Labour Party and trade unions. This may be how it is seen by those who dream of a Labour government no longer beholden to the organised working-class, or by those who yearn for the exit of all socialists from a party (whether they themselves are within or beyond the Party). The real picture involves officialdom in both of the Party and the unions.

There are not separate bureaucracies of the Labour Party and the trade unions. There is a single labour movement bureaucracy which crosses both wings of our movement. UNISON often employs senior officials directly from the employment of the Party, and the senior officials of the trade union (apart from the small minority still following the Morning Star) generally share the attitudes and mindset of those are in control of the Party.

Andrea Egan exemplifies the best of the socialist activists who currently form a majority on the National Executive Council of UNISON. There will therefore be those, amongst the paid officials and right wing lay activists of the trade union, who will welcome anything which they feel may make it less likely that she is re-elected in the forthcoming elections to the NEC. Their aspiration for the role of UNISON under a Labour Government is to repeat the experience of the New Labour years, when we failed to stop foundation hospitals, student fees and the Iraq war.

Labour’s right wing do not want the absolute destruction of our trade unions. They depend upon them for a reliable source of funding when the billionaires go back to the Tory party, always their first choice. What the leadership of the Party, and their allies in the labour movement bureaucracy, want is a trade union movement sufficiently subordinate to Labour in government that it will not threaten the mass mobilisation of our class around policies in our own interests. 

If we want a labour movement that will defend the interest of our members from both Tory and Labour governments, then our response to the unjustified attack upon Andrea Egan must be to support her fight to remain within the Party and to fight within a trade unions to force the unions to use the influence they still have to defend party democracy and socialist activists.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Rest in Power: Hitesh Patel (16/9/58-11/11/22)

Hitesh with Hassina Malik defending our pensions

On Friday 11th November, the Lambeth branch of UNISON lost one of our most respected and admired retired members.

Hitesh Patel, 64, a true friend and comrade, died unexpectedly whilst receiving treatment for the long running degenerative condition, the consequences of which he had borne with great fortitude for several years.

I had known Hitesh since soon after he arrived to work in Lambeth Council around the turn of the century. He was a loyal and solid trade unionist and it was entirely appropriate that he soon became a reliable and hard-working shop steward. 

In a trade union branch notorious for having a diversity of socialist activists, Hitesh bridged the gap between the politically motivated comrades, most of whom (myself included) often failed to relate to our ordinary members like human beings, and the other shop stewards (who did not try to sell each other newspapers).

Hitesh was a principled and committed anti-imperialist, but he was never trying to recruit anyone to anything (apart from UNISON), promoting any Party or faction (although he was always on the side of the left) or pursuing any personal agenda or ambition.

Hitesh had a gentle kindness and generosity of spirit which is, sadly, all too rare in our movement. He brought together the commitment to a better world and the desire to help each individual which together make the best socialist shop stewards.

As a Branch Secretary, I knew that Hitesh was someone upon whom I could rely to take on an individual case, to stand on a picket line or to attend a demonstration. 

He applied the courage and determination which made him such a fine trade unionist to coping with the enormous health challenges which he faced in recent years, and which led him to retire from the council last year.

More than anything, he was my friend. I am devastated that we have lost him at such an unreasonably young age, and I know that many others who knew him will be feeling the same.

The best of a lifetime of trade union activism is the best of the people we meet along the way. Hitesh Patel enriched my life and I am proud and grateful to have known him.

Leon Rosselson put it better than I can;

And our lives were made rich by the cause that we fought for

The friendship the fellowship, sharing one pain

To transform society, end exploitation

And that day will come yet, but not in my time


Friday, November 11, 2022

UNISON's Braveheart

A UNISON NEC member (and past President of the Union), has successfully bought a complaint against UNISON to the Certification Officer.

Whether or not one agrees with the action taken in the particular case, it is important to recognise and salute the courage required on the part of an individual to take such a case against one's own union.

Although the Certification Officer carries out a role that has existed for more than 100 years, it is true that their role in considering complaints from trade union members has its origins in the anti-union laws of the Thatcher Government. Therefore, those of us who have found ourselves compelled to challenge what we considered to be wrongdoing by making such a complaint have always risked the opprobrium which comes with being seen to complain about the labour movement using anti-union laws.

Although the detailed decision of the Certification Officer does illustrate the fact that the case presented by UNISON (that is to say by UNISON officials on behalf of the trade union) did not disagree with the facts as presented by the applicant, and also that UNISON officials were happy to agree with them as to the appropriate remedy, this does not detract from the considerable personal courage which will have been required to bring the case.

I would like to be able to say that this was a characteristically courageous challenge to the unjust abuse of power by a comrade upon whom I could always rely for support when I was part of an embattled and abused minority on the UNISON NEC. I would like to be able to say that this episode reminds me of how the applicant in this particular Certification Officer case had stuck up for an NEC member who was compelled to attend meetings remotely for several years because the meetings took place in a venue which was not accessible to them. I would like to be able to say that the individual who so courageously mounted this particular challenge had, to my knowledge, a long track record of confronting wrongdoing within the trade union.

I would like to be able to say all of those things. Unfortunately I can’t. (My recently increased dosage of morphine must have led me to hallucinate...)

In fact, this case has been brought, by someone who was a respected leader of UNISON’s “Ancien Regime”, to try to enforce continued compliance with the (deeply flawed) established “custom and practice” for dealing with internal disciplinary cases (set out in a protocol in 2001 after the - then - new General Secretary had intervened to pull the plug on disciplinary action against your humble blogger).

UNISON Rule I.5.3 states that “In any case, the body on whose behalf [a disciplinary] investigation is undertaken shall consider the result of such investigation before deciding whether or not a charge should be brought.” Where that body is the NEC, the NEC therefore needs to consider the result of the investigation.

The NEC protocol elaborates as follows; “The result of the investigation will be reported back to the NEC for consideration of whether or not charges are brought based upon a prima facie case being established. So as not to prejudice any members’ case, the recommendation will be solely based upon a prima facie case being established or not. The report is not made available to the NEC as there is a strong risk of prejudice to the member potentially facing charges under Rule I. This practice has been endorsed by the High Court.  In cases where a prima facie is established, subject to the NEC’s approval, charges will be brought and a disciplinary panel convened in accordance with Schedule D to test the evidence.” 

Therefore, because disciplinary panels consist of NEC members, it is considered that it would be inappropriate for the NEC, which will include potential members of a future panel, to receive the report of an investigation the result of which the Rules require them to consider. The consideration is (formally) delegated to the relevant Committee Chair (so that, technically, the NEC has considered the result of an investigation the report of which all but one of them have not seen). In practice, the Chair has generally rubber stamped a recommendation from the relevant official. Investigations which do not lead to disciplinary action never make it as far as being reported to the NEC.

NEC members are permitted to ask questions about disciplinary cases reported to the NEC, but only to ask them in writing and the answers are received only by the individual member asking the question. Therefore, UNISON members being disciplined "by the NEC" are actually being disciplined in circumstances in which most NEC members have no idea what they have accused of, what evidence exists and whether the conduct of the cases is reasonable. This established practice has contributed to expensive and embarrassing errors such as that in the case of four activists who were members of the Socialist Party.

Nevertheless, it is this flawed status quo which the Certification Officer has now ordered must be re-applied in a particular case, in which the NEC in March had voted not to proceed with recommended disciplinary action. The NEC decision in this case was (understandably) criticised because it was taken without the NEC explaining its reasons. 

The NEC could not of course explain its reasons since no members of the NEC (bar one) had seen the report upon which the recommendation which they opposed had been based. The Certification Officer decision vindicates the approach of an NEC accepting a recommendation on the basis of the delegated decision of an individual without ever having seen the report of an investigation which the rules require them to consider.

The Certification Officer enforcement order means that the NEC will need to reconsider the particular case (and, in so doing, will not really have any choice other than to accept the recommendation put before them however much they may feel that this amounts to an abdication of their responsibility under UNISON Rule I.5.3). The wording of the enforcement order was agreed between UNISON officials and the applicant.

The Certification Officer enforcement order requires that the reconsideration of the case “will be conducted in accordance with fairness and the principles of natural justice, taking into account that the NEC does not see the investigation report.” So that's all quite clear really… 

The way forward in the particular case may be settled. 

Whether UNISON should continue with an approach to disciplinary action that has, in the past, often shamed our trade union is another, and much larger, question.

Not that any of this should detract from our admiration for the courage and determination of the applicant before the Certification Officer.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

UNISON and the NEU - we need unity

On a day when news is breaking about strike action by nurses, civil servants, rail workers and Scottish teachers, if you heard that senior officials of two of the four largest trade unions affiliated to the TUC were meeting together under the auspices of the TUC you might think that it was to discuss coordinating action to defend the living standards of their members.

(This would, of course indicate a certain optimism about the attitude of the TUC to its role given recent experience).

In fact today's meeting is to discuss a complaint made by UNISON against the National Education Union (NEU) concerning the NEU’s campaigning activity.

The NEU have written to the government to demand increased funding for schools in order to pay for a more substantial pay rise for both teachers and support staff. They have balloted their support staff members, as well as their teacher members, for support for industrial action in support of this demand.

UNISON views this conduct as a breach of an agreement, brokered by the TUC, that the NEU would not seek recognition to negotiate on pay and conditions for support staff (the recognise trade unions for which are UNISON, GMB and UNITE).

The recognised support staff trade unions have, following a consultation exercise organised by branches, accepted the most recent pay offer for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (including school support staff) although this amounts to a real terms pay cut for most members. This follows the shameful decision of UNISON's National Joint Council (NJC) Committee to refuse to make a recommendation either to accept or reject the offer when consulting members.

Whilst it is obviously embarrassing when someone else starts a campaign to fund a decent pay rise for members whose own union has accepted a real terms pay cut, there is no need for UNISON to view the NEU campaign as a hostile act. Any concession by the Government to the NEU demands would provide funding for a higher pay rise in future years, something with UNISON and the other recognised support staff trade unions should welcome.

Unfortunately, UNISON has not taken this view but has written to its branches recommending that UNISON should “temporarily suspend co-operation with the NEU at all levels of the union – National, Regional and Local - where this won’t have a negative impact on UNISON members or bargaining structures.” The Union has gone further, and suggested to branches that they write to schools “asking school employers to support UNISON’s position in relation to the NEU.” 

Certainly, when I was a UNISON branch secretary I would have filed such a circular in the waste paper bin. Apart from anything else I can't imagine ever having had the time to attend any meetings (with or without representatives from any other trade union) if my absence from that meeting would not have had “a negative impact on UNISON members or bargaining structures”. Whoever drafted the letter which UNISON HQ has sent to its branches they know very little about running a busy UNISON branch!   

UNISON officials may feel that they have a legitimate beef with the NEU and that they should raise this with the TUC, but there really can be no excuse for seeking to involve employers in taking sides in such a dispute between trade unions before that has even been an initial meeting at the TUC. We are all fortunate that the intemperate approach adopted by UNISON officials has so far led to only limited media coverage.

Underlying this conflict however is a longer term problem, highlighted on this Blog nearly 6 years ago, following the merger between NUT and ATL which created NEU. The NUT did not organise support staff in schools, but the NEU inherited the tradition of doing so from ATL. Six years ago National officials at UNISON HQ were worrying about this and, if any of them are thought that the deal subsequently struck with the TUC was some sort of permanent solution they obviously weren't paying attention.

Someone hasn't updated our website for more than five years since UNISON still claims to represent “more education staff than any other trade union in the UK” with 350,000 members in education and that “UNISON is the largest union in schools, representing over 250,000 members in support staff roles across the UK.”

The NEU has a better claim to being the largest education union, with more than 420,000 members contributing to its general fund in the last official return. Whilst the silly willy waving about membership numbers interests only a few bureaucrats in the trade union movement it is beyond embarrassing that UNISON's website continues to make a claim that was true once but hasn't been true for years.

(This embarrassing and long-running untruth told on UNISON's website rather makes the case for effective lay oversight of UNISON communications, something which has not been a feature of our trade union for decades).

Although Socialist party members active in both unions have seized the opportunity to promote their own particular interests by criticising UNISON's complaint to the TUC, they have been offered an open goal by the mistaken approach adopted. Rather than officials of the two unions squabbling, they should be discussing how to coordinate activity to improve the living standards of all our members in schools.

In the long run, as I have argued here before, it should not be beyond the imagination of our movement to find a way in which school support staff can be members of more than one trade union. We offer this option to high paid managers in the health service and I can't see why we could not offer it to low paid workers in schools.

In the immediate term, the general secretaries of UNISON and the NEU should be discussing how to establish a Confederation of Education Unions to coordinate campaigning and organising across schools, further and higher education. This would provide an established forum to avoid future misunderstandings and promote joint activity. 

UNISON should be supporting the NEU campaign for the government to fund a pay rise in our schools, and the NEU should support the role of the recognised support staff trade unions (albeit now that it is clear that the NEU have more members amongst school support staff than at least one of the recognised unions, the question of recognition will clearly have to be re-visited in the near future).

There is an opportunity here to take a most unfortunate episode and turn it to the good purpose of bringing our trade unions together in the spirit of an understanding that we are brothers and sisters in the movement and not "competitor trade unions.” It would be lovely to think that the officials of the TUC could bring this about, but I think it falls to leading lay activists in UNISON and the NEU to find a way to put the interest of our class first.