The snap election for General Secretary of Unison, called on 20 January, has caught many by surprise. Dave Prentis, the incumbent, got the National Executive to nod through his personal timetable for the ballot. Normally there would be months of notice before nominations are opened but his schedule starts the nominating period on 4 February. Prentis has already put out publicity to branches and set up a website appealing for nominations and donations.
Prentis has been General Secretary since 2001. “Control” rather than “leadership” has characterised his term of office. On paper Unison has better than average democratic structures, it claims to be led by a lay membership, but the full time apparatus has a firm hold. Prentis has now used that control, and a compliant majority on the executive, to call an election in which he can get unfair advantage.
The left is in a weak position following repeated attacks. Disciplinary action has been used to expel or suspend members of the left, and not just individuals in socialist groups, as a deliberately executed and resourced project originating in the union’s HQ.
Prentis has led the union’s industrial and political retreat, adopting a policy of “partnership working”, where its role is to mediate with employers or even advocate for them rather than represent member’s interests directly.
Where conflict with the bosses can’t be avoided Prentis has relied on every available back room tactic, “friendly chats” and legal appeals rather than trust the members in action. Towards New Labour the policy has been one of obedience not challenging the privatisation of public services with anything apart from a few well crafted conference speeches.
Members have paid the price been with more costly pensions, worsening conditions, and, as we enter the latest round of negotiations with the employers, direct pay and job cuts.
The wider cost has been the break-up of public services and privatisation going through without a fight.
During a rising tide of community campaigns to defend the NHS involving hundreds of thousands, Prentis made sure that Unison kept to the sidelines, limiting the campaigns by starving them of support and resources.
The left has been forced into selecting a candidate and mounting an election campaign against Prentis without the time needed to develop a campaign from the bottom up. For instance, members’ meetings and local hustings could have helped develop a movement behind a credible left candidate. In this situation what should the left do and say?
Democracy should be the central plank of any left platform. Regular fixed term elections for all national officers and full time officials would be an obvious starting point.
The left should be clear that Prentis’ calling of an election to his own advantage is an abuse of power.
Only by such reforms, allowing branches to act more independently, without threat of sanction from above, will the union be able to create active, vibrant and growing branches fit to meet the challenge of cuts and pay freezes.
The major opportunity provided to the left in the election campaign will be to make propaganda for the kind of union we want. It should not just be an appeal for votes from the members but an invitation to actively participate in the structures and campaigns of the union. It should also aim to mobilise members to build a rank and file democracy movement much broader than the current isolated left.
A meeting of representatives of Unison’s left on 30 January failed to come to any agreement on a united candidate. Time was certainly a factor against getting agreement, but the focus of this left was still too heavily dependent on national positions rather than building influence in and organising the rank and file.
The sticking point came from Socialist Party comrades who insisted on the need for inclusion on any joint platform of disaffiliation from the Labour Party. The current “Labour link” they say is the major obstacle to Unison being able to campaign effectively for its members.
Their candidate, Roger Bannister, has been the most successful left challenger in the last three General Secretary elections, polling 17% of the vote in 2005. He is based in the Knowsley local government branch in the north west region.
The other candidate present was Paul Holmes, secretary of Kirklees Unison local government branch. He is a Labour Party member and supporter of the Labour Representation Committee. There is an exceptionally high rate of union membership in his area and a well developed network of stewards and reps. To accommodate a branch meeting on Single Status Agreement they had to hire the local football stadium.
Paul advocates the need to develop branches as the basis of renewing the union and offers clear practical experience of how to achieve it.
On the political fund Paul says he wants to change the union’s relationship with Labour so that “the union’s policies are pursued in the Labour Party and not vice-versa”. But he thinks the political fund should be under the control of the national conference and members rather than the small clique who currently control it. There should, at the end of a process of discussion, be a membership ballot on affiliation to Labour.
The current leadership’s slavish following of New Labour’s policies has certainly been a factor in why the union hasn’t fought in recent years. But to describe it as the sole factor avoids dealing with the big democratic and structural issues that affect the union.
Declining membership, broken and dysfunctional structures and a failed industrial strategy — to which the left has failed to provide an alternative — are just as important in explaining the union’s failure to act.
To campaign around one slogan focused on Labour affiliation given that by the time of the election there may be a Tory government viciously attacking the public sector is to distract the members from the most important task of building the union locally.
At present Paul Holmes is the only candidate that has presented such a rounded programme that attempts to answer all these challenges. He can also present his own positive, local example of how strength is found in the organised membership.
AWL comrades will continue to pursue a united candidate. A recall left meeting on 3 April, at the end of the nomination period, will try again to broker agreement.
That will be an open meeting and hopefully will draw hundreds of activists into the debate. It will have to go further than a debate about political funds and discuss the kind of industrial strategy that defends members and services against the cuts to come.
It would also have to consider how to deal with the lack of democracy inside the union that stops local branches and activists taking effective action.
Finally, it would have to deal with the problem that election campaigns, even successful ones, can’t substitute for building a movement among the members that can deliver effective industrial and political action. The opportunity is there to use this election campaign to take our ideas out to branches and members and build such a movement.