SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Lessons of the UNISON general secretary election

LAST MONTH’S election for the general secretary of the public services union, UNISON, Britain’s biggest trade union, revealed a lot about the state of the unions and the union left.

The sitting general secretary Dave Prentis, as widely expected, won with 184,769 votes (75.6%). Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister, polled 41,406 votes (16.9%). But the ‘United Left’ (UL) candidate Jon Rogers, a UNISON branch secretary in Lambeth and a recently elected national executive member, received just 18,306 votes (7.5%).

Jon, we were told before the election, represented the ‘organised united left’ forces in UNISON. If that is the case, many would ask, why did he get less than half the votes of Roger Bannister? Part of the answer has to be that UL is not an organisation of any great size or influence, representing in practice no more than the forces of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP – which historically had a certain base in NALGO, one of the pre-merger component unions of UNISON) and relatively few independent individual lefts. It is not in any way comparable to the Broad Left organisations that, in the past, involved a significant layer of rank-and-file activists.

The union bureaucracy wanted the election out of the way fast. It allowed little time for the campaign, little more than two weeks in fact. It was noticeable that Prentis ignored most invitations to hustings meetings and did not even send a substitute speaker, so the debates were mainly between the two left candidates. When Jon Rogers announced himself in these meetings as the ‘United Left’ candidate, most members wondered what he was talking about. In the union movement at this stage such phrases have little resonance amongst ordinary members. What clinched support for Roger Bannister was his explanation of the pernicious role of the Labour Party in the union and how the leadership was too close to the Labour government. His call for a complete break with Labour went down a storm amongst council workers in particular. They, after all, are under daily attacks from Labour councils on their jobs and working conditions, and now the attacks on their pensions.

After the election, Jon Rogers’ immediate response on the UL website as to why he did so badly was the bizarre comment that "our support was squeezed between the massive support for Dave Prentis within the UNISON machine and the alternative provided by Roger Bannister, who offered a straightforward anti-Labour message and had the advantage of standing for the fourth time in a general secretary election". But if Roger Bannister had all this going for him (and with his impressive track record at local level in the North-West region of UNISON) then why did Jon Rogers feel he could better represent the left in the union? Clearly, his fond illusion about the existence of a mighty left force in the union was just that – an illusion.

The Dave Prentis campaign did lean heavily on the existing machinery of the union, including its full-time officials. His list of nominations (from 570 branches plus a host of regional councils, national service groups and self-organised groups) superficially looked impressive. But they came, in the main, from Prentis supporters on local branch committees, and were put through, in practice, out of sight of the rank and file. For the bulk of the 1.476 million people entitled to vote in the election, the first they knew that there was a general secretary contest was when the ballot envelope dropped onto their doormats.

The reality of many trade unions today, not just UNISON, is that there has been a shrinking base of activists. There are, of course, partial exceptions to this, particularly in those unions that have been in action, such as the civil service union (PCS), and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT). Yet, even in unions with a fighting leadership, the strength of the left and membership participation in the unions’ structures have not been rebuilt to the levels reached in the past. This is primarily a result of the low level of strikes and lack of action by the unions nationally. It is also linked to the political retreat in the 1990s of many of the remaining union activists, following the post-Stalinist ideological assault on socialism. Anyone who claims to represent the ‘left in the union’, as Jon Rogers did in the guise of the UL group, should ask themselves what that is supposed to mean in reality.

The SWP, which for its own sectarian reasons was not prepared to back Roger Bannister, was at the same time fearful of putting one of its own members forward. The last time it did this, in 1995, its candidate, Yunus Bakash, was heavily outpolled by Roger Bannister (4.7% of the vote to 18.2%), even though Yunus had more nominations than Roger. So the SWP was obviously convinced that by putting up someone still in the Labour Party – which Jon Rogers is – it would be able to cash in on what it thinks is the ‘Labour Party left’ in UNISON. This flows from the SWP’s false analysis of the Labour Party. Unlike the Socialist Party, the SWP argues that the Labour Party remains a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ which can still be a vehicle for socialists. It opposed the position outlined in Roger Bannister’s programme, which called for the union to break its links with Labour and build a new trade union based party.

For a long time Socialist Party supporters in UNISON have fought to change the relationship between the union and the Labour Party. But all efforts have come to naught as the bureaucracy has fought to keep its links with Labour. All avenues to change the relationship foundered on the rule book which allows, in effect, only those union members who are also in the Labour Party to change the union’s rules regarding political affiliations. But the SWP blithely carries on calling for the ‘democratisation’ of the political fund while completely ignoring this fact.

Jon Rogers, egged on by the SWP, no doubt made the mistake of thinking that the number of branch nominations was the yardstick that determined who was likely to get more votes. Having received 50 branch nominations to 30 for Roger Bannister, he demanded that Roger stand down because he (Jon Rogers) "now represented the real left in the union". In fact, even before nominations opened, and whilst discussions were still taking place between the Socialist Party and UL national officers about whether an agreement could be reached, Jon Rogers announced himself as the ‘candidate of the left’. As far as we know there was no national UL conference, or even national committee, to select the candidate. It seems that a meeting took place some time after Jon Rogers’ announcement, endorsing him after the event.

Contrast that with the way the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic UNISON (CFDU) endorsed Roger Bannister in 2000. CFDU held a conference and invited not only nominations from CFDU members but also those outside its ranks. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party was promoting a candidate and she came to the CFDU conference seeking endorsement. But after an open debate, Roger Bannister’s nomination was overwhelmingly carried.

After Jon Rogers’ poor showing, the SWP effectively disowned its candidate. The report on the outcome of the election in Socialist Worker (19 March) refers to "two left wing challengers for the leadership, Jon Rogers and Roger Bannister, [who] won 8% and 17 % respectively", giving no indication that it had promoted and backed Jon Rogers.

The broad lesson that socialists in the unions should take is that just announcing the existence of a united left is not enough to bring it about. An effective broad left organisation has to be based on the mood of the members and a programme and policy that meets this mood and shows a way forward, while also being aware of how consciousness can develop rapidly on the basis of the struggles that will loom under a likely third-term New Labour government.

Only a clear understanding of the stage we are at in the unions can explain what is going on. The need for a united campaign against the right wing is obvious – these are the people who advocate class collaboration with the bosses in the form of ‘partnership’. But it is not enough to know what you are against. You also have to know what you are for.

Bill Mullins


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