Unison at a crossroads

Neil Cafferky

Industrially and politically Britain’s largest public sector union is under siege from the Tories’ relentless austerity agenda.

Internally, the union is mired in scandal. A leaked recording from the Greater London region led to allegations of interference into the recent general secretary election by senior paid employees of the union in favour of the incumbent, Dave Prentis.

Unison employees are forbidden in the union’s rule book to campaign in elections unless it is in their spare time. Further leaks of emails, allegedly from assistant general secretary Cliff Williams, appear to show campaigning on behalf of Dave Prentis by employees of the union outside of the Greater London region.


These revelations have raised serious questions about the integrity of Unison’s democratic procedures. Despite Dave Prentis’s recent victory in the general secretary election, is it still possible there can be change at the top of the union?

Opposition to the Prentis group has been growing over a number of years in the union. The group suffered its first serious reverse with the defeat of the witch-hunt of four Socialist Party members on trumped up charges of racism.

Out of the anti-witch-hunt campaign came ‘Reclaim the Union’ (RtU). RtU is a loose alliance of left groups and activists that agreed to stand under a common banner for elections.

An important organising principle of RtU is the ‘consensus method’ – where candidates’ election slates can only be put together if all parties are in agreement.

This has been vital in keeping together an often fractious left. It also acts as an example to other forces in the union who might not have been traditionally aligned to the left. It can help to reassure them that they would not be railroaded into anything that they did not agree with, should they look to cooperate with the left in the future.

Under the RtU banner the left made steady, if unspectacular, progress in elections. However, the most significant change in the direction of the union came from within the Prentis camp.

Following an underwhelming pay deal in 2014 a layer of activists began to move into open opposition to Prentis and the union’s leadership. This came to a head following the disastrous local government pay campaign for 2015-16.


Manchester branch initiated a successful move for a special recall conference on the pay offer. Against the recommendation of Prentis loyalists, conference voted for a supplementary pay claim in 2016. It was the most serious reversal for the union leadership in years.

In parallel to the pay dispute there was a realignment of the Local Government Service Group Executive (SGE). Former supporters of Prentis, supported by the left, now had a majority over Prentis loyalists.

Last month, on the initiative of Socialist Party members, the SGE voted to back the call for councils to implement a legal ‘no cuts’ budget. The current local government SGE is a model of what Unison as a whole could become, where different groups in the union work together to put forward a fighting programme.

The general secretary election in late 2015 presented the best opportunity in 20 years to bring about change in the union. Unfortunately a series of short sighted mistakes meant this opportunity was not grasped.

Heather Wakefield’s decision to run for general secretary was a significant moment in the battle to change the union leadership.

Her candidacy represented a serious split in the leadership of Unison. Her background as head of local government and as a former Prentis supporter meant she would probably gain more votes from members tired of the Prentis regime but not yet ready to back a candidate coming from the longstanding left.

As the only female candidate in the race she would also be a powerful draw in a union of 80% women members.

No-cuts budgets

Socialist Party members in Unison have had differences with Heather Wakefield in the past over issues like industrial action and the witch-hunt. We continue to have differences over the question of ‘no cuts’ budgets for councils.

However, for the reasons given above it was felt at the time that she was potentially a major threat to Dave Prentis. If she were the sole candidate facing Prentis then it might be possible to defeat him.

If there was to be a three or four-way battle for votes then Prentis would be the inevitable victor. For that reason Socialist Party members began to open up a dialogue to see if a single anti-Prentis candidate could be agreed.

This was widely derided by supporters of the other left candidate, John Burgess. Completely misunderstanding the significance of Wakefield’s candidacy they argued she was no different to Prentis and would only take votes from him, allowing a left candidate to come through the middle and win.

On the initiative of Socialist Party member Roger Bannister a meeting was held on 14 October with Heather Wakefield and John Burgess. This was in the period after the close of nominations (9 October) but before the closing date to withdraw a candidacy (16 October).

Roger Bannister offered to withdraw if a single anti-Prentis candidate could be achieved.

After an hour of discussion John Burgess announced he had no intention of withdrawing as he had no mandate to do so from his supporters. He then declared that Roger Bannister and Heather Wakefield were welcome to support his campaign and left the meeting.

In the end John Burgess came last with Heather Wakefield coming second, taking votes off all three candidates (see box), but with Roger Bannister receiving a very good 16,853 votes (12.6%).

The question marks that hang over the general secretary election will have damaging effects for Unison as long as Dave Prentis is in charge. They will hamper the union’s ability to wage an industrial and political campaign to defend its members from the Tories’ austerity agenda.

So far, the right wing press has paid little attention to the scandal. That will quickly change if the union finds itself in a confrontation with the employers.

This poses the question of what to do next for all those seeking change in Unison? In the view of the Socialist Party this begins with a coming together of all anti-Prentis forces in the union with the supporters of Heather Wakefield playing a prominent role.

While there may not be full agreement on every point of programme, there exists enough agreement on issues like democracy in the union and the need for Unison to play a more high-profile role in the fight against austerity for there to be the beginnings of a discussion on how to change the union.

There is an urgent need for all anti-Prentis forces in the union to meet together, possibly at national conference (21-24 June), and begin to hammer out a broader coalition to change the direction of the union.

Socialist Party members in Unison stand ready to do whatever is needed to make this coalition a reality.

Election scandal

The general secretary election scandal has generated two investigations; an internal one headed up by assistant general secretary (AGS) Roger McKenzie, and another ‘external’ investigation by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). There are a number of complaints before the Trade Union Certification Officer.

The ERS report is now available on the union’s website. It concluded there were some valid complaints. However, citing the low vote for Prentis in the London region and the margin of his victory, it concluded this did not have a decisive effect on the outcome of the election and therefore there were no grounds to rerun the election.

Anti-Prentis candidate

It is worth noting in passing that if a single anti-Prentis candidate could have been achieved then Prentis’ victory (if he had won at all) would have been narrower, possibly making a refusal to rerun the election harder to justify.

The ERS report also said it could find no evidence that Dave Prentis had any knowledge of the actions of Unison staff in regards to rule breaking.

Superficially, Dave Prentis seems to have been cleared by the ERS. Nonetheless, the ERS report leaves many questions unanswered.

In total the ERS received 157 complaints, 31 of which were deemed ‘valid’ while 40 were deemed ‘invalid’.

In 86 complaints the ERS made no findings at all, citing the fact they were currently under an internal investigation headed up by AGS Roger McKenzie. 83 of these complaints relate to the leaked recording of staff in the Greater London Region that appears to show them organising to win nominations for Dave Prentis’ campaign.

The investigation by McKenzie has been complicated by the leaked emails from his fellow AGS Cliff Williams. (Unison has five unelected assistant general secretaries. Their diligent work allows Dave Prentis time to pursue other non-general secretary functions like his paid non-executive directorship of the Bank of England.)

The leaked emails, if they prove to be authentic, seem to indicate AGS Williams directing operations for the campaign to re-elect Dave Prentis, known as ‘Team Dave’. One prominent ‘Team Dave’ member included in the email chain is none other than AGS Roger McKenzie!

The emails contain campaigning advice for Team Dave, including the eyebrow-raising suggestion: “It may be that in some circumstances you may be able to help to ‘circumvent’ hostile branches by covertly working with sympathetic employer contacts.”

Another interesting revelation from the emails is the presence of Mark Ferguson in the email chain. Ferguson was the campaign manager for Blairite candidate Liz Kendall during her bid for leadership of the Labour Party. He has since been given a prominent job in Unison’s policy department.

Jeremy Corbyn

During the Labour leadership election Prentis loudly supported the bid of Jeremy Corbyn, a campaign that was popular among Unison members. What are they to make of a key Kendall supporter’s involvement in Dave Prentis’s campaign? What effect will this have on Dave Prentis’ support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity politics?

Unison general secretary election – declared on 17 December 2015

Roger Bannister – 16,853 (12.6%)

John Burgess – 15,573 (11.6%)

Dave Prentis – 66,155 (49.4%)

Heather Wakefield – 35,433 (26.4%)

Socialist Party programme for a fighting and democratic Unison

  • The election of all senior full time officials of the union, including the assistant general secretaries
  • Elected officials to take no more than the average wage of a Unison member
  • An end to undemocratic interference into branch democracy by full time officials
  • To lead a fight in defence of local government and the NHS through a programme of national coordinated action against cuts and privatisation
  • Support the junior doctors. For a meeting of all health unions to discuss coordinated strike action across the NHS. For a national demonstration in defence of the NHS
  • For a national campaign in defence of DOCAS (the system by which union subs are deducted from members’ wages)

Unison bureaucracy unmasked:

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The Defend the Four Story

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