I 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.