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15 January 2020

Labour leadership race: Reverse Unison's undemocratic nomination of Blairite Starmer

Public service union Unison, the largest trade union in the UK, announced it was nominating Keir Starmer for Labour leader on 8 January. There is widespread outrage in the union's ranks.

We say the union's ruling body, the national executive committee (NEC), must be recalled to review the decision. Hugo Pierre, a member of the Socialist Party and the Unison NEC, spoke to the Socialist (in a personal capacity).

How has Unison endorsed Starmer, an opponent of Corbyn's anti-austerity platform?

I think you have to contrast the decision making that took place in 2015 and 2016, where the union decided to back Jeremy Corbyn. There was a month-long process of consultation throughout the union.

At one point, 20,000 members took part in deciding who Unison should support. Corbyn, with his anti-austerity programme, really hit a nerve with ordinary Unison members, and therefore became the Unison nominee.

This time round, the decision wasn't taken by 20,000 members, but purely by the members on the national Labour link committee.

There's a maximum of 24 members that could be involved, 12 from the NEC and 12 from the regions.

It seems that four committee members did propose there should be a wide consultation. There's a consultation mechanism already in place; they wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel. But they were voted down.

So those few people could decide exactly who they wanted between them. If that had happened in 2015, probably right-winger Andy Burnham would have been nominated, to the mass disquiet of loads of members around the country. And the decision this time is causing a major uproar in our union.

The candidates haven't even fully developed what their programme is. I don't know how the decision for Keir Starmer was taken by the Labour link committee - on what points of principle. And I think on the NEC we won't find out.

We weren't consulted by any of the 12 people we send from the NEC onto the Labour link committee. Even we've been blocked out on the NEC!

This decision affects the whole membership of Unison, and the wider trade union movement. Why was it not put before the NEC?

Unison has a different relationship with the Labour Party than most other unions which are affiliated to it: not every Unison member is affiliated. Because of that, there is a delegation of decisions around policy and leadership to the Labour link committee.

But notwithstanding any criticisms of that, any decisions should still be democratic. By that I mean not just the people showing up in the room and putting their hands up, but making sure it's accountable to the hundreds of thousands of Unison members who pay, through their subscriptions, affiliation fees to the Labour Party.

This decision hasn't done that. It flies in the face of democracy. It should be reversed, and a proper, accountable decision made. We have got time.

This is a union of 1.4 million members. I would say that for candidates to win our vote, they should be coming to us. We should be able to ask them questions. We should be able to understand what direction they want to take the Labour Party in before we make a decision.

What would be relevant to the ordinary Unison member is what the individual's stance is on things like council cuts, on things like defending the NHS, because healthcare and local government are the two main areas Unison organises.

Also, I think many members would want to know whether they were going to repeal the anti-trade union legislation, which is used to restrict our ability to fight. Where they stand on issues like low pay, which is endemic in our union. On issues like job cuts.

In 2015 and 2016, it was widely agreed - even the general secretary [right-winger Dave Prentis] reluctantly agreed - that Jeremy Corbyn had actively backed most, if not all, of our union policies.

What should the union do now?

I think the national executive committee should hold an emergency meeting. We should ask the candidates to come in. I think the whole executive needs to hear from them. Then our 12 NEC Labour link members should cast their vote based on what we've decided as affiliated members on the NEC.

The regional Labour link representatives should also hold widespread consultation among the affiliated members in their regions, so the regions are giving a steer to the reps they send to the Labour link committee on who to vote for. At least we can be confident then that a decision's been made that we can get around.

Some of us still may not agree with the decision, and then we have to campaign politically. But that's a different scenario to what we've been presented now; what I believe is an entirely undemocratic vote.

You're a local government union rep in Camden, Keir Starmer's constituency. What's your view of how he's helped council workers fight the cuts?

It's almost as if Jeremy Corbyn hadn't been the leader. I think one of the main reasons Jeremy didn't win in 2019 is because working-class areas have had services decimated by Labour councils.

At the moment there's a proposal for the council to cut four nurseries in the borough. But that's been the music of the past ten years.

And to my recollection, since Keir Starmer became an MP in 2015, he's not come to back any of the campaigns against cuts to services. He's not once said to the council, look, we need to change direction, we shouldn't be making cuts.

If councillors refused to make cuts, they could lead mass opposition to what the Tories have been doing, and campaign to win the needed money back. This is a question for everybody standing for Labour leadership - whether it's Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey.

And I worry that we won't put pressure on Keir Starmer. I wasn't there, but I've seen some of the photos that were in the press. When Keir got the nomination, he was invited into Unison HQ and wined and dined.

We've got a serious job to do as a union. It's not wining and dining politicians, it's putting them on the spot. Where do you stand as far as our members' jobs, terms and conditions, and the service we provide go?

We shouldn't be providing a free lunch for anybody. We should be drawing up a list of our demands, and making sure that those are their demands.

I'm appealing to ordinary Unison members, and those with positions as well. We've got to look at a way of making sure our union is more democratic - and to push back on what has happened around this nomination.