Unison: Holmes and Bannister divide the left vote

The current election for Unison general secretary exposes the failure of the left. Will Pragnell looks at the manoeuvrings of Dave Prentis and the right and urges the left to unite


The election currently underway for general secretary of Unison, the largest public sector union, raises vital democratic and organisational questions:

  • The need to fight for internal democracy in general
  • The need to fight against witch-hunts in particular
  • The need to develop rank and file organisation
  • The need to overcome spontaneity with consciousness
  • The need to develop left unity around all of the above

Generally, since the Thatcher era and the demise of the dominance of the ‘official’ Communist Party we have seen the Trotskyist left gradually ensconce itself into the bureaucratic machinery of a number of unions as left ginger groups. To a remarkable degree many of them, and especially the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, have brought into the union movement their own rotten, bureaucratic centralist methods – a sort of caricature of the old CP. This mirrors the corporate style of bureaucratic management of the unions by the right. What has then ensued has been a tussle between right and left bureaucrats over the heads of the mass of membership.

With both types of bureaucrat it is a fight for control of the membership, not a fight for control by the membership. This explains the left’s unseemly preoccupation with winning union positions, conference delegates and conference motions. The union machinery is more important than the workers – or for the left is at least seen as a shortcut to getting things done for the workers. Both operate as an elite and see leadership in very mechanistic terms. This is by no means to equate left and right bureaucrats – the left at least makes partial attempts to activate members and has some sort of vision of socialism, but its members often end up as bureaucrats who shy away from rank and file organisation and democratic control.

The problem for the left is that – without developing a base amongst a currently apathetic and disengaged membership majority – it is difficult to make much headway against the top bureaucracy, which has at its disposal the full resources of the union machinery and a layer of appointed officials. We constantly hear the left talk about the need for a rank and file movement, but this very difficult problem is always subordinated to the much easier prospect of winning union positions – and for this you only need a layer of activists (who substitute for a rank and file). Eventually though, the left’s lack of any significant base amongst the membership leaves it exposed to isolation – it can be outmanoeuvred, attacked and sometimes bureaucratically removed by the right.

In the unusual circumstances where the left does gain control (eg, in the PCS civil service union) it is nevertheless self-neutered to a large degree by the ‘pragmatic’ realisation that the membership is still relatively inactive and by the potential for isolation that impels it to tail other not so left unions (the RMT is, because of its history and industrial strength, an overhang from a previous era).

The shift in the make-up of the working class to include large numbers of workers directly employed by the state determines the importance of the public sector unions in any fightback. The left is particularly concentrated in the largest of them – Unison. Traditionally union density has been relatively high in public sector unions, but this has been falling. It is now less than 50% in local government (in some areas much lower). Amongst members only a tiny minority attend union meetings, often to the extent that it is difficult to get a quorum, and it is usual for only a minority to vote in ballots over issues that directly affect them like pay and conditions – when it comes to union elections that minority shrinks considerably. The vast majority of workers are still disengaged, atomised and unorganised.

Over the recent period the incumbent Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis, a compliant national executive majority and appointed officials have been forced to manoeuvre against the left – activists organising disputes that do not fit in with corporate partnership deals, and putting conference resolutions critical of New Labour, posing disaffiliation or demanding democratisation of political funds. Scandalously, suspension from office or expulsion from the union has often gone hand in hand with collusion with employers resulting in sackings. In a recent overtly Stalinist move it was decided that NEC members could not speak against the recommendations of committees of which they were members.

It is SPEW that has borne the brunt of the right’s bureaucratic moves – not least over the eventual banning from office of four members for putting out a leaflet critical of the leadership at the 2007 Unison conference. The excuse used was that they had caused ‘racial offence’ by illustrating the leaflet with a ‘three wise monkeys’ cartoon. Branches previously run by democratically elected SPEW comrades were taken over centrally.

Despite all these manoeuvres the leadership still felt it necessary to fix the election for general secretary in its favour. Late last year there were rumours that Prentis, whose term is up at the end of this year, might try to invoke an ambiguous rule that would allow him to stay in office without an election until his retirement in 2013. Derek Simpson had tried this in Amicus-Unite and the resulting fall-out forced a ballot anyway. In December Unison left executive member Jon Rogers asked the NEC to clarify the rule, but in January a special executive was called at which Dave Prentis announced a snap election. Whether Prentis would have gambled on invoking the rule to extend his term is a moot point. It is likely his clique’s plan is to arrange a smooth handover to a selected bureaucrat who might be installed as assistant general secretary under a renewed mandate for Prentis.

The suddenly announced leadership election with an imposed and rapid timetable was clearly designed to minimise the ability of the left to mobilise sufficient support and agree a single candidate in time for the election. Prentis, meanwhile, can rely on the whole union machinery and appointed officials to run a slick campaign. He can also rely on his advantage as incumbent general secretary to garner the support of branches and areas where the left has no significant layer of activists.

As soon as the announcement was made, there was a flurry of discussion on left blogs and forums calling for a single left candidate, whilst three leftwingers threw their hats into the ring: independent Delroy Creary, Labour left Paul Holmes and, standing for the fourth time, SPEW’s Roger Bannister.

In view of the recent bureaucratic measures a strong anti-witch hunt candidate was an important consideration. Though SPEW was not the only target, Roger Bannister as a well known socialist who had always outvoted competing leftwingers was in a strong position to deliver a strong anti-witch-hunt vote. Given the short timetable that severely disadvantages the left, this was the pragmatic option and so on this score it would have been reasonable to unite around Bannister. However, there were other considerations.

Unison United Left (and some others) proposed that in the short time available the best way to decide on a single candidate was on the number of nominations received. This was, at least on the part of some, a bit disingenuous, as in the previous leadership election Roger Bannister had received considerably more votes in proportion to his nominations. Comrade Holmes agreed to withdraw if Bannister got more nominations, but he did not reciprocate – there is little doubt that SPEW intended to stand Roger Bannister no matter what. SPEW made no alternative suggestions and this, of course, served to underline its sectarian propensity to do its own thing yet again.

A serious obstacle to left unity, let alone working class unity, is SPEW’s ridiculous policy of disaffiliation from the Labour Party, when there is no serious political alternative. This alienates those who are equally critical of Labour, but have a more sensible policy of democratising union funds – not to mention also all those workers who still have illusions in the Labour Party (an estimated 30% of Unison’s membership). So, while Roger Bannister has a decent track record of support, it has been limited by SPEW’s own sectarian policy.

Paul Holmes is better here. He favours democratising the funds, opposes the witch-hunts, promotes organising the rank and file and has apparently extended his appeal into areas not normally reached by the left. It is clear from the organisation and union density of his branch that this is not idle talk. Thus most see Paul Holmes as having more substance as a left unity campaigner and rank and file organiser. He could eventually overtake Roger Bannister’s level of support.

Delroy Creary failed to achieve the minimum of 25 nominations required, while comrade Bannister received 34 and comrade Holmes 58. An activists’ meeting was called to discuss the way forward, but neither SPEW nor Bannister showed up and instead made clear their intention of standing come what may. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to support Holmes and ask Bannister to withdraw. Unsurprisingly Bannister declined and, already disadvantaged, the left was now destined to see its vote split.

There are other aspects of SPEW’s policy and culture that do it no favours. SPEW’s main thrust against the Labour Party is opportunist – it appeals to emotional and populist prejudices. There is no deep analysis or theoretical elaboration. It taps into genuine grievances about Labour, but instead of promoting a real working class alternative proposes an illusory Labour Party mark two. SPEW’s sectarian agenda in practice ends up appealing not only to apolitical workers, but also to sections of the anti-Labour right. It is a relatively easy form of vote-catching, but leaves aside the question of raising the consciousness of workers and building class unity. It is a dead end that prevents the development of class and revolutionary consciousness.

SPEW does not have a monopoly on this nonsense and, notwithstanding the above criticisms, Roger Bannister would be a vast improvement over incumbent Dave Prentis. However, we have to break with this continual sectarian, low-level, spontaneous reaction to events determined by others. We need to build a real rank and file base in order to move forward in a conscious way so that we (as a class) are able to determine events.

The right gets away with its manipulation and manoeuvring because it is not answerable to the rank and file. It is not the job of the left to try and replace the right in its control of the union. We need to empower the membership, and make the leadership (of any hue) answerable to it. Winning leading positions is useful to the extent that they are used to empower the rank and file.

In this election Paul Holmes, with all his illusions in social democracy, at least gives some hope of a first step in this direction. In that respect he is a much needed breath of fresh air.

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