Unison conference – Right wing exploit left NEC mistakes to win votes

But determined lead over pay and cuts can transform union

For the first time in three years, Unison reps and activists met together in the union’s National Delegate Conference (NDC), which took place in Brighton from 14-17 June.

Much has happened since 2019. While the current general secretary, Christine McAnea, is from the same right-wing grouping as predecessor Dave Prentis, last year’s national executive committee (NEC) elections saw the left win an historic majority on the leading lay body of the union.

This conference was an opportunity to consolidate this victory and use it as a platform to transform Unison into the fighting union that members need, as they face up to the biggest cost of living crisis in generations. However, unfortunately, it was the right wing that won some victories during the week.

This didn’t reflect the mood of most delegates or of Unison members, who increasingly want action on pay and to stop further cuts to public services. Many delegates ended their stay in the south by staying an extra day so that they could march on the TUC demo in London on 18 June.

Ready for action

It was clear that where the new NEC could show it had taken steps to defend members and prepare for a fight, they were supported. The move to increase strike pay to £50 a day was cheered, as was putting more funds into branches. Most of the political motions on the need for a fight on pay and the cost-of-living crisis were passed, and even McAnea in her conference speeches had to put out the call for branches “to get strike ready”.

However, as the Socialist Party, including our four members on the NEC have warned, the left NEC majority in the ‘Time for Real Change’ (TFRC) group, were not able to take advantage of this, as a result of mistakes they have made which the right were able to exploit.

Paul Holmes was elected as national president of the union last year by the new left-led NEC. This was despite TFRC knowing that complaints of bullying and harassment had been made against him in 2019, preceding both the 2020 general secretary and 2021 NEC elections.  The complaints were made by 15 left-wing fighting reps, activists and staff in his Kirklees branch, yet the left chose to put Holmes forward as their candidate for general secretary, with many suspecting that this was to cut across Socialist Party member Hugo Pierre being seen as the leading left general secretary candidate. As we predicted, this, and then his election as president, backfired.

Initially, it was the old Dave Prentis leadership which stalled on investigating the complaints of the ‘Kirklees 15’ against Paul Holmes, hiding behind the Labour council to deal with the charges. However, the current left-led NEC majority then dismissed the case in March 2022, despite having previously indicated that there was a case to answer.

Socialist Party members during conference, and at the big meeting of 300 called by the ‘Kirklees 15’ campaign, defended the right of members to make complaints and to have them taken seriously. We argued for an emergency resolution to be put to conference which called for “the NEC to re-open the investigation to give the opportunity both to the complainants to make their case and to the president to defend his position and for both sides to be given full access to the results”. Despite the resolution being supported by the Kirklees 15, and the conference voting for it to be heard, it was ruled out on legal grounds.

Playing into right’s hand

Unfortunately, the method of TFRC was to continue to dismiss the complainants, producing a bulletin with an article titled ‘The problem with whitewash’ in relation to Kirklees. Undoubtedly, this approach played into the hands of the right wing, who were able to take advantage of genuine concerns that complaints would not be taken seriously by this NEC. Had the NEC proposed re-opening the investigation, as we proposed, it would have cut across this.

We also warned that the left NEC would only be able to consolidate its support by showing members it could lead a fight on jobs and pay. The six resolutions passed by the NEC last autumn to improve democracy and lay control of the union, which Socialist Party members supported, wouldn’t be understood unless democratic issues were linked to building a fighting union.

On Tuesday, the first day of the national conference, two motions were passed which falsely accused the current NEC of changing the rules of the union – which only conference has the right to do – and instructed the NEC to reverse the six resolutions. Actually, the NEC had only restated existing rules. The right wing, however, whipped up the idea that the NEC was breaking the rules by removing rights from the elected general secretary ‘in order to protect Holmes.’ 

Socialist Party delegates spoke in these debates to expose the role of the right wing in failing to fight for Unison members’ jobs, pay and conditions over decades, and also their record of witch-hunting left activists.  Socialist Party members spoke against the right wing’s proposed rule changes. Key rules changes were denying the right of the NEC to use its discretion to keep an unemployed member in full membership and, as such, to enable them to continue to hold office. Rightly, this is to ensure that victimising employers don’t get to choose who is a branch secretary, NEC member or president.

Three Socialist Party members spoke in these debates pointing out the risks to all reps if these rules were implemented. Undoubtedly, delegates voted for the rule changes because of their anger over the Paul Holmes case.  However, the result is that all are in a worse position, at risk from victimising employers.

The one rule change that was passed with the required two-thirds majority gave the NEC the right to allow an unemployed member to hold office “providing they have not been dismissed from employment for any act of discrimination or harassment as defined in Rule I 2.3 (i) and (ii).” Clearly, the union should be able to prevent those guilty of discrimination or harassment from holding office, but this rule change leaves it to the employer to decide who is guilty, rather than it being a democratic decision of the union.

Complicated conference

In what was a complicated conference, Socialist Party members made a number of excellent interventions, demanding a fighting strategy, exposing the right wing and challenging the dangerous positions they were putting forward but, at the same time, demanding the Kirklees 15 had a right to a hearing and criticising TFRC for completely mishandling the situation.

There was an excellent Socialist Party fringe meeting with up to 50 attending, with a number of delegates interested in finding out more about the Socialist Party. We sold over 150 papers and raised over £2,000 for our fighting fund.

While the right will be celebrating its victories over the left, this will be short-lived. The bubble of conference will be soon burst as the battle over pay now looms. The size of the 18 June demo will lift the confidence of thousands of activists.

The left in Unison and across the public sector must campaign for national strike ballots on pay, and to coordinate the strikes to build at least public sector general strike action alongside an increasing number of private sector battles. It will be in this climate that the next NEC elections, starting in January, will be fought. This is a battleground in which the left can make further gains, provided they show they are determined to lead a fight for Unison members’ interests.