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UNISON activists need to move on from the General Secretary election

unisonI am not a member of UNISON, and I am neither qualified nor inclined to comment on the respective merits of the various candidates who recently contested their election for General Secretary. However, I do think that there is cause for concern for the whole labour movement that such a large and important union may become distracted by internal disputes at such a critical juncture, when we face a determined assault on living standards and public services by a Conservative cabinet ideologically wedded to austerity. Furthermore, when the government’s trade union bill threatens not only some trade union rights, but also includes the very practical danger of check off (known in UNISON as DOCAS) – the deduction of trade union contributions from payroll – being outlawed in the public sector, which is designed to hobble the finances of public sector trade unions.

UNISON, along with the other unions, will need to show unity and determination to resist.

The result of the election was as follows:

Dave Prentis 66,155 votes (49.4%)
Heather Wakefield 35,433 (26.4%)
Roger Bannister 16,853 (12.6%)
John Burgess 15,573 (11.6%)

Prentis therefore won a convincing majority over all the other candidates, and won the support of nearly half of all those voting.

A relevant comparison is the 2000 election, when Prentis was first elected, where he received 55.9%, (125,584 votes on a higher turnout. In that election, Bannister – the Socialist Party candidate – received 31.65% (71,021 votes).

Controversy surrounds the recent election because of a recording that has emerged which appears to feature someone sounding like the London Regional Secretary, Linda Perks, encouraging full time regional officials to campaign on behalf of the incumbent General Secretary, Dave Prentis. If true, this would be against UNISON’s election rules. Perks has now been suspended while an internal UNISON investigation is conducted, and it would be improper to comment while that process is not yet concluded.

A number of complaints have apparently been referred over this matter to the Trade Union Certification officer, who is an independent official with the power to adjudicate, and could theoretically require the election to be rerun. A relevant question to ask, however, would be whether any potential breach of the union’s rules would have materially affected the outcome. Given the margin of Prentis’s victory, it would be reasonable to assume that his re-election does truly represent the views of the wider membership.

Nevertheless, Left wing member of UNISON’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Rogers reports that 23 members of the NEC have called for Prentis to be suspended. This follows a vote at an NEC meeting where 21 NEC members voted to discuss the alleged electoral malpractices, with 32 NEC members supporting a call for next business ( a procedural mechanism to halt discussion on a topic).

Whilst this might sound quite damning, the voting exactly mirrors the nominations by the same body before the election took place. 32 for Prentis, and 21 for lay member candidates. So it would again be reasonable to assume that the division on the NEC reflects established positions, rather than an escalating crisis.

The left therefore has a real responsibility to ponder its next move carefully. If individuals or branches seek to use the current controversy to undermine the existing leadership of UNISON, then that would be irresponsible if they cannot replace it with something better and stronger. It is incumbent upon all trade union activists to consider whether their actions leave organisation stronger or weaker.

On a note of terminology, I think it unfair and inaccurate to simply accept a framing of these contests as Dave Prentis being challenged by “the left”. In historical terms, in the context of British trade unionism, Prentis is himself a supporter of the left. However, for the sake of convenience let us refer to his lay member challengers as being “the left” in UNISON. I hope it is not unfair to quote again from Jon Rogers, because he puts the case clearly. Here he discusses not only Dave Prentis, but also one challenger, Heather Wakefield, who is also a senior official in the union.

There’s no point replacing a male General Secretary whom many of us feel has given inadequate leadership in the fight against the Tories with a female candidate in respect of whom there is no evidence that she would be any better.

Heather missed the boat five years ago when, having stuck her head briefly above the parapet, she ducked back down before the polls opened.‎ In the past five years Heather has not only failed to differentiate herself from the incumbent General Secretary but has been in the front rank for some of the most dismal outcomes to major industrial disputes in our history.

‎UNISON staff kept a final salary pension scheme – but not the membership. Whilst Dave Prentis led the retreat from united action to defend pensions after the single day of action in 2011, Heather Wakefield was an integral part of the leadership which led us away from unity.

Similarly, whilst it was Dave Prentis who, having smashed the now notorious ice sculpture could not lead a united fight to do similar (or any) damage to the Government’s pay freeze, Heather Wakefield was the Head of Local Government going in to the catastrophically mismanaged 2014 pay dispute.

There are a number of problems with this.

Firstly, if there is no reason to differentiate between Wakefield and Prentis (and to be fair, having read Heather Wakefield’s campaign material, she did not make a strong case that she would be a better or even a significantly different GS than Prentis), then their combined vote is 75.8% of those voting. This compares to the vote of 67.3% secured by Prentis alone in 2010, and 75.6% for Prentis in 2005. Meanwhile, the combined left challengers votes show a consistent minority in the union (24.2% in 2015, 32.7% in 2010, 24.4% in 2005). In broad terms the left does not have sufficient support to defeat Prentis, and the level of support is not growing.

Secondly, the arguments put forward by the left candidates assume that the 2011 pension dispute and 2014 pay dispute could have achieved significantly better outcomes. Let us examine this:

With regard to the pensions dispute, the result for the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) was as good as could be achieved as I argued at the time; and the reference to unity by Jon is misguided as UNISON did stand in unity with GMB and Unite who were involved in the LGPS dispute. The membership in these three unions in local government were not tin soldiers to be deployed in battle over the separate disputes over other, different and unfunded pension schemes that did not directly affect them. As I argued at the time

The difference in assessment of Monday’s pension talks between Mark Serwotka and Dave Prentis cannot be explained merely by the differing political outlooks of these two general secretaries. According to Mark the talks were “a farce”; whereas Dave Prentis said “there was a sense that today we were in real negotiations”.

The government seems to have made a substantive concession to the unions representing local government employees, whose pension arrangements are via the funded LPGS scheme; whereas no concessions seem to have been made to the unfunded schemes for teachers and civil servants.

Because the issues are so complicated, and resistant to easy answers, then there is scope for negotiation between the unions and government, even this government. However, we should recognise that the funded LGPS does give unions representing local authority workers more leverage than the unions representing workers in the unfunded schemes.

Talk of coordinated union action over pensions may be unachievable therefore, if the government makes concessions to the unions in the local authority scheme, but not to teachers, civil servants or the NHS.

On the face of it public sector pensions is an issue that should unite workers; but the detailed differences in outcome may undermine that unity. A Teaching Assistant earning about £7 per hour, working part time and being paid for just 30 weeks per year, typically only pays into the LGPS for less than seven years; whereas a male teacher on retirement may have 30 years of contributions behind him. Does anyone really expect the school support staff to strike to support teachers if the government makes concessions on the LGPS?

Turning to the 2014 pay dispute, this was sufficiently well enough observed on the first day of action to make the action effective, in conjunction with the press and media operation of the national unions. It did reveal the difficulties of organizing national action in the public sector, and the move by the teaching unions to not support a follow up day posed a challenge to both GMB and UNISON organizing school support staff. There was a Quixotic decision from UNISON not to ballot their members in academies for the first day’s strike, though GMB did successfully strike in these employers; but the most chaotic aspect was the subsequent holding of a special conference by UNISON where lay member delegates repudiated a deal already agreed with the employer jointly with GMB and Unite.

What is noteworthy about this argument is that those who believe that the result was a “sell out”, did not themselves secure a better turnout or participation in their own workplaces in the action than allegedly more moderate parts of UNISON. The challenge from the left would therefore seem to be stronger in words than in action.

I am sure that there are many ways that UNISON could be improved, and it is not my place to comment on them. However, there is a very real danger that the current controversies over the GS election may destabilise the union. It is incumbent not only on the left to consider their next move, but also for supporters of Prentis to consider how these divisions can be resolved.

27 Comments

  1. Keith Wright says:

    The critical problems with this piece are that (i) it underestimates the severity of the accusation of ballot rigging and (ii) it effectively accepts one person’s suggestion that there is no clear difference between what Heather Wakefield and Dave Prentis would offer as leaders of UNISON.

    The accusation of ballot rigging is very serious indeed. If it was the case, as alleged, that the regional secretary of the union in the UK’s largest city was actively engaged in briefing union officials of that region on the organising of the campaign for the sitting candidate, you would have to ask whether, if that level of corrupt practise was possible in one region, would it it not also be likely to happen elsewhere?

    It is also necessary to understand the importance of the nomination stage. In a recording of a meeting in which paid union officials appear to be discussing how to assist Prentis’s election campaign appeared, the person alleged to be Linda Perks explains:

    The branches that have made nominations can legitimately and democratically should notify their members that they have nominated Dave and that they have made the nominations so they can send out an email to their members telling them that the ballot is going to open on 9 November and that their branch nominated Dave Prentis. They can also legitimately put a footer on all emails saying vote in the General Secretary elections and that our branch nominated Dave Prentis. They can also send out a newsletter with a small piece in it that says General Secretary Election opens on 9 November all members encouraged to vote and our branch nominated Dave Prentis.”

    By encouraging branches to nominate a candidate, in contravention of the rules, an official who is well placed to do so would enable the branch to use the union’s official machinery to encourage its members to vote for that candidate.

    If this form of ballot rigging did in fact take place, the effect on the result could have been considerably greater than Andy Newman appears to believe.

    Furthermore, even if Jon Rogers may have seen too little difference between Heather Wakefield and Dave Prentis at the time of the 2011 pension dispute and 2014 pay dispute, many on the left nevertheless regarded Heather as a left candidate in comparison with Dave Prentis. Indeed Roger Bannister of the Socialist Party was prepared to withdraw in her favour had John Burgess been prepared to do likewise.

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      From the outside, what strikes me is the fact that both the SP and SWP seem to have stood separate candidates against each other and both called on each other to withdraw for the sake of “unity”.

      Same old, same old…

      1. Andrew says:

        SWP didn’t stand a candidate.

        1. Alex James says:

          Burgress was the SWP supported candidate. Even if they had one far left candidate they would have still lost. Prentis majority was that big.

          1. Jon Lansman says:

            Burgess was also supported by some Labour left-wingers and the Morning Star. The Prentis vote was high in relative terms but if there was widespread improper manipulation in one region, one must presume it may also have happened in others. The combined effect could be considerable.

          2. Alex James says:

            Jon Lansman, you sound just like the Labour right whining about Jez winning

          3. Alex James says:

            Jon Lansman, you sound just like the conspiracy theorists of the Labour right whining about Jez winning.

            Not like an editor.

    2. Alex James says:

      the “tape” has been found to have been tampered with. In common with other unions there is no rule that staff cannot stand or campaign for anyone they want as long as not in their official time and do not use union resources.

  2. James Martin says:

    On school support staff I wonder if Andy is aware that Unison are signing up to academy recognition agreements that have only them as the support staff union, GMB and Unite generally find out afterwards if they find out at all, as for all Unison’s faults unlike the other two TUC affiliated support staff unions in schools at least they tend to still have active lay reps covering schools in most areas.

    But the biggest omission is an analysis of just why Unison is so woefully ineffective nationally despite its size, and why it signed a sweetheart deal with Francis Maud that enabled it access to the civil service where it is attempting to actively poach PCS members and undermine the public sector union that has both suffered the most from austerity cuts (far more than local authority unions in terms of job losses) and has undertaken more strike against against the government as a result. PCS have of course formally complained to the TUC, but the fact that Prentis would be involved in such an attack on PCS is central to an understanding of just why it is it was such a defeat for the movement as a whole that he won the GS again.

    1. Alex James says:

      this allegation is nonsense and silly sectarian drivel.

      1. James Martin says:

        http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/pcs_comment/pcs_comment.cfm/complaint-to-tuc-about-unison – You were saying Alex? You must be feeling a little ‘silly’ right now eh…

        1. Alex James says:

          Err – not really. Has the TUC upheld the “complaint”? Think not. The Tories must be laughing at unions attacking unions in public.

          1. James Martin says:

            The TUC normally don’t decide for one side or the other (witness the complaint by Unison to the TUC last year against ATL for alleged poaching of support staff in schools that also has never seen the light again). But it’s wonderful that you think that attempts to undermine PCS by Unison in the civil service by doing a back room deal with Maud when PCS is under such a sustained attack is funny Alex and seeing that the motion criticising Unison’s disgraceful behaviour was passed unanimously at PCS national conference says it all about what has gone on. How ironic though that you dismissed the issue as ‘nonsense and silly sectarian drivel’ when clearly the nonsense and sectarian drivel is all coming from you.

          2. Alex James says:

            So PCS pass a motion publically attacking another trade union and therefore it must be true: anyone who does not agree is being sectarian and instead of blaming the government for attacks they blame another trade union…. What a joke. The Tories must be laughing their socks off at us.

  3. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

    Dave Prentis has been a poor representative of NHS workers who have seen their living and working condition plummet.

    The attacks on the NHS by the Tories have gone unchallenged, he knows from the inside what has been happening over the last five years and yet done nothing of significance to enlighten the public as a whole.

    I think he is weak and ineffectual and the sooner he goes the better for the union and it’s members.

    1. Alex James says:

      You are entitled to your view but most UNISON members dont agree. Stop attacking your union and attack the Tories.

  4. Andy F says:

    Actually the Socialist Party candidate offered to withdraw in favour of one anti-Prentis candidate. Burgess refused to participate.
    The article effectively asks people to turn a blind eye to possible serious malpractice by senior officials of the union. I doubt if the same would be said for left wing or ‘Trotskyist’ infringements. The calls for investigation and rerun would be loud indeed.

    1. Andy Newman says:

      Actually the Socialist Party candidate offered to withdraw in favour of one anti-Prentis candidate. Burgess refused to participate.

      Coulda, shoulda, woulda …

      If it was the right thing to do for Bannister to withdraw in favour of Wakefield then he could have done so, without making it conditional on an irrelevant consideration of whether or not a thirs party agreed.

  5. SimonB says:

    I’ve raised my issues with Prentis’ election before, but for this piece I have to take exception to being told to “get over it.” We should be seriously concerned that fewer than 10% of the electorate bothered to vote no matter the outcome. Of course we need to take the fight to the real source of the problem. That’s one of the main complaints against the Prentis status quo ffs!

    1. Andy Newman says:

      but for this piece I have to take exception to being told to “get over it.”

      No, the argument is whether or not the union and its members are best served by a fight on ground where Prentis has already shown he is strong and can win.

      The words I use are to “move on”, because sometimes you have to bend so you don’t break.

  6. Andy Newman says:

    James

    On school support staff I wonder if Andy is aware that Unison are signing up to academy recognition agreements that have only them as the support staff union, GMB and Unite generally find out afterwards if they find out at all, as for all Unison’s faults unlike the other two TUC affiliated support staff unions in schools at least they tend to still have active lay reps covering schools in most areas.

    I think the situation varies between the regions and nations.

  7. Andy Newman says:

    Furthermore, even if Jon Rogers may have seen too little difference between Heather Wakefield and Dave Prentis at the time of the 2011 pension dispute and 2014 pay dispute, many on the left nevertheless regarded Heather as a left candidate in comparison with Dave Prentis.

    I appreciate that Wakefield was and is considered more to the left than Prentis.

    I don’t want to get drawn into a discussion of the relative merits of candidates.

    The issue is that the margin of victory for Prentis was still considerable

  8. Andy F says:

    Prentis has an incredibly poor record “on the ground”, hence he is forced to rely on officials marshalling a small number of votes in an election with a predictably low turnout. Its the only way he can win. The most shocking thing to me was the advice to the officials to literally make up lobbies of parliament to keep the left branches busy. I wondered why the union organised so many pointless lobbies!

    1. Alex James says:

      Despite a “mainstream” candidate standing against him, Prentis still got just under half of all the support. The extremists came bottom as usual. He won fair and square. Get over it.

      Lobbies work and much better than pointless strikes that hardly anyone supports?

  9. Andy Newman says:

    Embarrassing…. you would have to have a heart of stone not to see the funny side:

    http://www.jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/apology-to-dave-prentis.html?m=1

    1. James Martin says:

      All I see is yet another Unison branch officer being scared by a potential witch hunt and expulsion given what has happened to so many others in the past.

      1. Andy Newman says:

        No, it looks like a retraction following contact with Unison’s solicitors about an alleged libel

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