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From: The Socialist issue 491, 14 June 2007: Fight for a living wage

Search site for keywords: Elections - Unison - Local government - Socialist Party - Witch-hunt

Members' discontent strengthens left in UNISON elections

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis and his right-wing allies have suffered a blow in the union's National Executive Council (NEC) elections. A number of right-wingers, including some prominent ones, have been unseated and replaced by lefts.

A UNISON member

Undoubtedly the election results reflect a growing discontent at rank and file level about the poor performance of the union in dealing with major national issues such as local government and NHS pay. Also, the local government single status agreement and equal pay, the local government pensions dispute and New Labour's policy of privatisation and the attack on NHS jobs.

The trend of low participation in these elections continued, with a turnout of less than 7% compared to 8% in 2005, the last time the elections were held.

There were large numbers of spoiled ballot papers. The ballot papers were confusing and looked more like consumer surveys. This indicates a need to simplify the electoral process.

The only real disappointment for the left in the elections was the fact that Socialist Party member Raph Parkinson lost his National Additional Member's seat to right-winger Mark Clifford.

Ironically during the election period Clifford was voted out of the branch secretary position in his own Cumbria County branch. It is likely that the membership nationally will see through him over the next two years, like his branch members.

This leaves the Socialist Party with three NEC members, Roger Bannister, (North West region), Glenn Kelly, (local government), and Jean Thorpe, (East Midlands, returned unopposed).

Unsuccessful Socialist Party candidates were Dave Auger, (West Midlands) and Len Hockey (health).

Perhaps the most satisfying left victory was the election of Bernie Gallagher to one of the North West Women's seats, unseating the right-wing vice chair of the union's Development and Organisation Committee.

Bernie is a victim of the political witch-hunt in UNISON, when a number of left activists were subjected to totally unjustified disciplinary action. Initially expelled, this was commuted on appeal to a five-year ban on holding office.

But Bernie refused to be separated from the union, attending conferences and regional councils as a visitor, often leafleting or lobbying activists in support of her case. Eventually the right wing took vindictive action and introduced rules to prevent members in this situation from even attending such meetings!

Bernie's election demonstrates just how little support the witch-hunt has at grass roots level. More importantly Bernie's election address carried a clear call to stop funding New Labour, in a clear rejection of the United Left's policy, of which she is a supporter.

In the same region this demand also featured prominently in sitting NEC member Roger Bannister's election address, enabling him to hold his seat with a majority of nearly 4,000 votes, for the second election running securing the highest vote in the region.

No wonder the union leadership fights tooth and nail to ensure that this issue is not even debated at conference.

They know that UNISON's continued financial backing for New Labour is deeply resented by the majority of members, as they face the New Labour government's policies.

Health group

The biggest shift to the left is in the two biggest service groups, health and local government, a clear indication of rank and file discontent. In the health group, two sitting right-wingers, including a former president of the union, were replaced by two lefts, Kate Ahrens and Alison Brown.

Paul Harper, the left secretary of the NHS Logistics branch also took a seat from a right winger.

This branch saw its membership privatised having had strike action delayed to the point of near ineffectiveness by the union leadership.

In the local government service group, Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly held his seat against a strong challenge from a right-wing member of the TUC general council. Kirklees branch secretary Paul Holmes took a seat from a right-wing senior vice president, a blow to the 'prestige' of the union's ruling clique.

Paul was undoubtedly elected as a result of the role both he and his branch played in organising for the special conference on the local government pension dispute.

The election of left Emma Goodall in local government, unseating a right winger, now means that the two largest service groups each have three left-wing members out of four seats on the NEC.

The New NEC will therefore have around 17 left members out of a total of around 60, a strong enough basis to exert influence on a small middle layer of NEC members, who do not always do what is asked of them by the leadership.

One confusing aspect of these results is that a number of the new left members are Labour Party supporters, and whilst representing increased militancy in the union, this trend plainly flies in the face of rank and file opinion.

Socialist Party members will therefore continue to work closely with other lefts on the NEC, whilst maintaining an independent grouping and programme.

These elections show that UNISON is not immune from political developments in the working class as a whole, and demonstrate the need for the left to build for future victories in the union.

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