Left gains in UNISON: “A change is gonna come”, but when?


“For the first time since its establishment in 1993, forces to the general secretary’s left have clear control of [the NEC}.. what is supposed to be Unison’s leading body between annual conferences.”

George Binette

By George Binette, UNISON member & Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP

The Autumn 2020 election to succeed Dave Prentis as general secretary of Unison, the UK’s largest trade union, saw Christina McAnea emerge the victor in a four-candidate race. At one level, this came as no surprise – after all, she was widely perceived by union activists as Prentis’ anointed successor and over the previous two decades Prentis supporters at the top of the union had constructed a substantial electoral machine. But in a poll run on a first past the post basis, McAnea had fallen short of an absolute majority and for the first time in six general secretary contests, a candidate who was not a full-time union employee secured more than a third of the vote. Paul Holmes, the long-standing secretary of the union’s Kirklees branch in west Yorkshire and a member of the union’s National Executive Council (NEC), won more than 45,000 votes – nearly 34% of the poll – to come a strong second, well ahead of the combined totals of NEC member and Socialist Party supporter Hugo Pierre and assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, who came a weak third despite endorsements from several Socialist Campaign Group MPs.

Holmes, who has faced suspension from both his Kirklees Council job and the union since December 2019, has been seen as a thorn in the side of the union’s national leadership for more than 15 years. His candidacy enjoyed active backing from John McDonnell, who also played a part in this spring’s elections for all 68 seats on the union’s NEC. The campaign also made good use of social media midst Covid-related restrictions. The loose coalition, which came together around Holmes’ candidacy and included some Labour lefts, SWP supporters and non-aligned activists, agreed a joint slate for this spring’s NEC contests under the slogan ‘Time for Real Change’. The slate assembled a record number of left candidates, reducing the number of uncontested seats from two dozen in 2019 to just six, while agreeing a non-aggression pact with the Socialist Party, whose supporters went on to win four seats.

The postal ballot ran between the 4th and 27th of May, with the results only revealed on 11th June, shortly before an online version of the union’s national delegate conference, which had been cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. To the doubtless dismay of the McAnea leadership team, the Time for Real Change grouping had secured an absolute majority – 37 of 68 seats – with the Socialist Party candidates winning another four. So, for the first time since its establishment in 1993, forces to the general secretary’s left have clear control of what is supposed to be Unison’s leading body between annual conferences.

A sharp left turn

For many socialists both in and out of the Labour Party the results were a welcome surprise. Unison, with some 1.3 million members, is by far the public sector’s largest union in the and after Unite it is frequently Labour’s second biggest donor. From the perspective of many of its activists and a growing layer of its “ordinary” membership the union’s response to the past decade of austerity has been feeble (at best), while under Dave Prentis’ leadership the union often proved a reliable prop for New Labour during the Blair-Brown years. More recently, Prentis and co ensured that the union threw its weight behind Keir Starmer’s leadership bid from the outset of the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn in early January 2020. Three months later key Unison staffers (Emilie Oldknow and John Stolliday), who had come from Labour HQ, featured prominently in a leaked report that among other things documented efforts to undermine Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s 2017 general election campaign.

The union’s declaration of support for Starmer’s candidacy came on the very same day as the nomination process began in the Parliamentary Labour Party and without any form of consultation with those union members who pay into the Affiliated Political (Labour Link) fund. To the astonishment of more than a few Corbyn supporters in the union, as well as the consternation of many of the union’s senior officials, the Unison Labour Link committee backed Corbyn, albeit by slender margins, in both 2015 and ’16. The union’s high command decided in the wake of Labour’s December 2019 to leave nothing to chance (or any semblance of membership involvement). Through its Labour Link fund Unison appears to have been the single biggest union contributor to Starmer’s leadership campaign, donating over £30,000.

“A change is gonna come”, but when?

But the new NEC faces significant internal obstacles to delivering ‘real change’ as well as the critical challenge of membership engagement against the backdrop of continuing cuts to real pay, terms and conditions. Turnout in the NEC elections was again worryingly low, reaching no more than 6.6% in any of Unison’s twelve regions and just 9.9% in any of its service groups. Nonetheless, the results signal a leftward shift within Unison’s activist layer.

Unfortunately, the signs thus far suggest that the entrenched machine built up over the past two decades won’t concede gracefully, not least in terms of the union’s relationship with the Labour Party. At present the union has two seats on Labour’s own NEC with one held by Wendy Nichols, the secretary of the union’s North Yorkshire local government branch, who lost her previous seat on the union’s executive in 2017 and has failed to regain it in two subsequent elections. The other Unison representative is Mark Ferguson, the union’s parliamentary officer and an appointed official, was LabourList’s editor from 2010-14. Both consistently vote with the right on the NEC. In contrast, Time for Real Change members of Unison’s NEC issued a statement clearly opposing automatic expulsions and proscriptions in the wake of the July vote by Labour’s governing body.

The hard work starts

Securing an NEC majority was probably the easy part. A dramatic illustration of the scale of bureaucratic resistance came just a week after the results emerged. On Friday 18th June the newly elected NEC met officially for the first time at the close of the online national conference. Its principal item of business was the election of a three-member presidential team, which plays both a significant symbolic and practical role during its year-long term. The new executive elected Andrea Egan as senior vice-president, Kath Owen as junior vice-president and Paul Holmes as president. In Holmes’ absence, Egan assumed the chair only to face multiple interruptions from full-time officials. The NEC was apparently blocked from agreeing a date for its next meeting (!), though it did eventually convene a July meeting.

The following Monday the union’s national website published a terse statement, which gave begrudging recognition of Holmes’ election, while noting that he cannot assume the presidency. The statement neglected to mention the reason: Holmes, while eligible to stand for office, has been suspended by the union for 19 months without a disciplinary hearing taking place. Another leading figure on the NEC left, health worker Karen Reissmann, cannot currently take up her seat, having faced multiple suspensions.

To an outside observer such internal wrangling may seem trivial, but they underscore the scale of the challenge the new NEC faces in leading the transformation of Britain’s biggest union into a force capable of mounting effective resistance to further real terms pay cuts, still more austerity in local government, real pay cuts across the public sector and the accelerating privatisation of the NHS. The new NEC does, however, include several battle-hardened activists, who have led successful local resistance.

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