The left needs to stand back from civil war in UNISON

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.

27 comments on “The left needs to stand back from civil war in UNISON

  1. i dont know if i agree with you or not you make some good points and it is unclear to me how serious this all is? i also suspect that the people who know about it and are considering if its something they wanted to pursue might put them selves at risk of litigation if they did they would be better off leaving that risk to private eye. i read it as a wider philosophical thing in tradition of the cpgb-cpb and lenin left wing communism and infantile disorder. taken as an abstract allways defending ones own side could be damaging in the long run would be an abstract counterpoint that i wont illustrate with examples.

  2. As an activist in UNISON it is humorous to say the least that you describe Prentis as left wing in any context.

    What you don’t mention at all in your article is that the turn out dropped from a dismal 17% in the last election to an shockingly dismal less than 10% in this one. What this reflects is the appalling way that UNISON is run and how disengaged members are, with many branches barely functioning. No surprise given the way the union is run, with witch hunts, branches taken over by unelected bureaucrats and a deeply uninspiring leadership. What is more concerning than UNISON turning in on itself is that the largest public sector union currently has a general secretary that wants to carry on down this route. In the face of pay cuts, pension cuts and a massacre of services and jobs the response from UNISONs leadership has been dire and the challenge to the government almost non existant. Strike action at a local level is obstructed and deterred, and the union is put forward like an insurance policy.

    The result for the left wasn’t good and we need a grass roots strategy to change that. But operating in UNISON is difficult to say the least.

    On an aside I think the pay dispute was so farcical that the offer accepted was worse than the original offer!!

  3. I’m no longer a civil servant, but when I was it seemed to me that the great majority of members were not interested in the wider political work of the union, nor branch meetings, resolutions or much beyond the collective pay bargaining and access to legal help if they had an issue.

    The characterisation of Unison members as radical left wing lions itching for action, but being led by donkeys is not one I recognise

  4. George W on said:

    Andy H:
    I’m no longer a civil servant, but when I was it seemed to me that the great majority of members were not interested in the wider political work of the union, nor branch meetings, resolutions or much beyond the collective pay bargaining and access to legal help if they had an issue.

    The characterisation of Unison members as radical left wing lions itching for action, but being led by donkeys is not one I recognise

    Exactly.

    I’m not in Unison and don’t know anything much about this election. Apart from being surprised there isn’t more action from them in the face of all these cuts, I’m not particularly interested in them.

    Similarly I find the vast majority of union members to be uninterested in anything much apart from pay negotiations and advice/representation.

    Of course we want to try to educate/agitate and make more of our members politically aware and class conscious, but pretending they are when they clearly ain’t doesn’t help and may actually hinder this from developing.

    But generally I think complaining to bodies outside the labour movement about your Union isn’t a good thing. If you ain’t happy with the leadership of your Union then build up a movement within the membership and structures inside the union.

    If we think there is too much legal interference in the labour movement from outside bodies then we shouldn’t be getting them involved in internal elections anymore than we have to already.

  5. Andy H:
    I’m no longer a civil servant, but when I was it seemed to me that the great majority of members were not interested in the wider political work of the union, nor branch meetings, resolutions or much beyond the collective pay bargaining and access to legal help if they had an issue.

    The characterisation of Unison members as radical left wing lions itching for action, but being led by donkeys is not one I recognise

    Except I didn’t say that, did I. I said participation in the election dropped from a terrible 17% to an even worse 9%. It reflects the way UNISON is run.

    Active and well run branches have far more input from the members. I suspect the national leadership are more than happy with low turn outs and lack of input as they carry on with their huge salaries and five star hotels.

  6. Dan,

    Actually if I had been running team prentis in this GS election I would have done everything I could to boost turnout, as higher turnout would benefit the well known incumbent over the challengers, and in fact UNISON did a lot of local radio advertising about the election encouraging voting, which I think is a good idea.

    The turnout was actually ok compared to GMB and Unite elections

  7. Andy Newman:
    I assume from the lack of comments that everyone agrees with me. Excellent news,

    I don’t feel qualified to comment either way. But the case you put sounds quite convincing to me.

  8. A 9% turnout is clearly not good. If you think the UNISON tried hard to get people to vote, it’s even worse. It’s a massive drop from five years ago and clearly shows the membership aren’t engaged with the union.

    Just because there are even more right wing general secretaries doesn’t make Prentis in any way left wing.

    UNISON has had no regional or national strategy against the cuts of any affect and didn’t break the pay freeze. It’s a terrible record.

    On top of this there are now serious allegations of electoral wrong doing.

    It’s funny how many people on here not in UNISON couch their comments with things like it’s not their place to comment, or they don’t know all the details. But then go on to do exactly that anyway.

    If UNITE and GMB don’t even get 9% for their general secretary elections then there is something seriously wrong.

  9. Brianthedog on said:

    Dan,
    Unite GS elections get a higher turnout than 9% and Andy is mistaken to suggest otherwise. However turnout is still low despite Unite spending a lot of time, money and energy publicising its elections. I can’t comment on Unison other to say that some of the arguments being trotted out by you regarding who is left or right and blaming the right wing or the bureaucrats for low turnout are they same ones used by the ultra left losing candidate in Unite. It’s hogwash and there are a lot of unfortunate reasons for low turnout and none to do with the leadership wanting it that way.

  10. Yes the leadership should take no responsibility in UNISON for the 9% turnout (9%!!!!), the disengagement of members, the massive job cuts and service cuts with no resistance, the continual pay cuts and inability for them to follow through with their promise to break the pay freeze/cuts.

    They should just pocket their massive salaries paid for by members subs, work in the luxury offices at Euston paid for by members subs, stay in the five star hotels paid for by members subs and take no responsibility for anything. Good job if you can get it. And as for electoral wrong doing, who really cares? Ultra leftism to suggest otherwise.

  11. Andy Newman on said:

    Brianthedog,

    My mistake. I must have been misremembering or confusing with the turn out in NEC electiobs, or both.

    The issue is though that low turn outs are a problem across all the unions, and blame doesnt lie with any particular individual, group or culture.

  12. Andy Newman on said:

    Dan,

    No Dan. My point is that in unions you pick your fights, and dont fight where you cannot win, and always have an eye on whether your action leaves organisation stronger of weaker.

    If you think that a fight over electoral malpractice would lead to you winning and the union being stronger, then you should also still consider the risk you are wrong, and what id at stake

  13. #12 & #15 A major reason for me going from someone who had merely decided that Len McCluskey was a better candidate than his ultra-left challenger who I had previously supported, to regarding said opponent as a danger to the Union was his decision to refer Unite to the Certification Officer, and the timing.

    Mea culpa!

  14. Andy to be honest UNISON couldn’t be much weaker whatever happens. Nothing has been done about the huge real term wage cuts despite Prentis smashing an ice sculpture of a frozen pound. Nothing has been done as jobs and services in local government have been decimated (up to 70% of jobs will have been cut in local government by 2018 if the Tories carry on getting their way). Membership is disengaged and no strategy is there to change things.

  15. Brianthedog on said:

    Andy Newman,

    Yes Unite EC elections get a lower turnout than GS elections.

    Dan … When I mentioned leadership I was referring to Unite and not Unison and by leadership I mean full time officials, EC members and regional committee members etc. None that I know wish there to be low turn outs in elections and it’s not to do with their lack of activism or engagement.

    As I said before I am not going to comment on Unison but your sweeping statements about 5 star hotels and luxury offices is just hogwash and does little to further the debate about your own Union and the challenges all unions face.

  16. Actually I think given the difficulties we are facing as UNISON members with low pay and job losses it’s not hogwash to complain about very highly paid officials using our subs to pay for them to stay in five star hotels. Hotels we could never afford to go to. Or for them to have wasted money on plush offices in Euston. Or for the general secretary to earn over 100k a year while doing nothing in terms of an effective strategy to stop the decimation of local government jobs and services. I don’t know how these people look at themselves in the mirror. Luxurious life styles off our subs while we suffer.

  17. Alan Ji on said:

    Subject: GENERAL SECRETARY ELECTION: COMPLAINT: GREATER LONDON REGION

    TO: NEC

    SENIOR AND NATIONAL MANAGERS

    REGIONAL SECRETARIES

    REGIONAL CONVENORS
    SERVICE GROUP CHAIRS
    RMT – GREATER LONDON REGION

    Dear Colleague

    As you know a number of serious allegations have been made against our union in London.

    The complaints are being investigated.

    Whilst it is not our practice to comment on an ongoing investigation on this occasion we believe there is one aspect that warrants public disclosure. This can be done without compromising the rights of those involved in this matter.

    The complaint presented by *** *** relies heavily on an anonymous recording. Given the seriousness of this tape the union commissioned an independent forensic report of the recording. The Presidential Team and the Trustees of the union now have the full report from the Audio Forensic Service.

    The forensic analysis was undertaken by an accredited audio specialist and the company is used by the High Court for audio evidence.

    The report clearly states that “the probability of tampering is exceptionally high”. On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), the Independent Expert rates the tape as a 5/5.

    The results have been passed to the Investigating Officer and the ERS and as the Presidential Team and Trustees we are also asking for a formal investigation of the providence of the recording.

    Please share as appropriate.

    WENDY NICHOLS, PRESIDENT
    ERIC ROBERTS, VICE PRESIDENT
    CAROL SEWELL, VICE PRESIDENT
    MAUREEN LE MARINEL, TRUSTEE
    CHRIS TANSLEY, TRUSTEE”

  18. Alan Ji: The complaint presented by *** *** relies heavily on an anonymous recording. Given the seriousness of this tape the union commissioned an independent forensic report of the recording. The Presidential Team and the Trustees of the union now have the full report from the Audio Forensic Service.

    The forensic analysis was undertaken by an accredited audio specialist and the company is used by the High Court for audio evidence.

    The report clearly states that “the probability of tampering is exceptionally high”. On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), the Independent Expert rates the tape as a 5/5.

    Interesting, and I am sure that most people who have represented union members in disciplinaries and been presented with tape evidence will have been uncomfortable with conclusions being leaped to before that evidence has been examined.

    However, this is an interesting response:

    http://barneteye.blogspot.com/2015/12/unison-general-secretary-election-more.html

    Now to the untrained eye this sounds like a very damning piece of evidence. I do however have to put on my hat as an audio engineer who owns a recording studio and ask a few questions. These are very simple to answer. I have been asked on occasion to analyse recordings for such purposes. The first is to ask what they mean by “tampering”. The implication from the email is that the recording cannot be trusted as it has been “tampered with”. What is odd is that despite being able to circlate to Unison officials a claim that the recording has been tampered with, the nature of this “tampering” is not specified.

    So what could tampering mean, in the context of an audio tape? Here are the main types of thing I would look for when asked to review a recording. The first two in effect are fraudulent. The third is quite the opposite. It is simply ensuring the key sections can be heard.

    1. Editing. This is where a recording has key sections removed or cut up and put back together. For instance take the phrase “I am not convinced that Henry is a good boy”. It would be fairly easy to remove the word “not” and the whole context of the phrase is changed. Theoretically it is possible to cut a speech up into constituent words and put back together in a completely different order take “Last night I went to see MY MOTHER. She has an infestation of japanese knotweed, which IS AN ALIEN invasive species. Her whole garden is being destroyed ERADICATING it. SHE IS so fed up she is SET ON going to EASTBOURNE for christmas” becomes “MY MOTHER IS AN ALIEN, SHE IS SET ON ERADICATING EASTBOURNE”. As you can see, potentially this can make a quite mundane conversation into something completely different. I haven’t analysed the recording on , but if the allegation is that the tape has been edited, this is very easy to demonstrate. As the meeting was public, you can use the background noise as a reference and you can easily identify exactly where the edits have taken place. I would expect a forensic company to say “there is a high probability that the tape has been EDITED (not tampered with). If someone was to ask me whether this was a feasable way of stitching someone up, I would say categorically no and I would advise against it, as it is very easy to spot. It is worth noting that there are two types of edits. One is a malicious edit, which changes the context of the recording. The other is what is called a cosmetic edit. A cosmetic edit is one where a section of a recording is removed in a way which does not change the context. In this case a section of a recording is removed as it is not relevant to the topic and its removal does not change the context of what is being said. For instance TV news is a whole series of edits. No one claims this is not trustworthy.It appears that there is a cosmetic edit at 2:52 into the audio file, where there is a break in audio of around five seconds. If this is the reason that the forensic analysis has deemed the recording “tampered with”, then I would say that this is a very misleading statement. This is quite clearly a cosmetic edit.

    2. Overdubs. Again this is another way in which a dodgy or unscrupulous person could make a tape seem to be something which it is not. You simply need to get someone who is a good mimic to say what you want and splice it into the recording. In this circumstance, it would be fairly easy to spot. In a public meeting, the background noise, the natural reverberation/ echo of the room and exact speech patterns of the person could be identified. Although it is easy to trick a human ear that you sound like someone else, there is fairly standard software which you can use which would identify the imitator. The pitch and tempo of the speech is impossible to match exactly. You would also see a general raising of the sound level. If someone was to ask me whether this was a feasable way of stitching someone up, I would say categorically no and I would advise against it, as it is very easy to spot.

    3. Audio enhancement. This is something our company does all the time (at this point I must state that I/my company have had no involvement at all with the Unison audio recording in question). Just about every video the Barnet Eye has ever posted of Barnet Town Hall has audio enhancement. When recording public meetings, it is often impossible to hear exactly what is being said. I spend hours fiddling with the sound levels in the studio. This isn’t changing anything, it is simply removing background noise, using various noise filters etc. The recording is still a true representation of the meeting, it simply means that the speaker can be heard. If, as I suspect, the “tampering with” is simply audio enhancement, this in no way casts into doubt the veracity of the tape.

    For the Unison officials claims to be taken seriously, they need to publish the full report, stating exactly why they have concluded that the the recording has been “tampered with”. If they are alleging editing or overdubs, then the report will quite clearly show graphic representations of sound waves and background levels abruptly changing and key sound signatures that demonstrate tampering. All of this is very easy to produce. Having made the claims, it is clear that they need hard scientifically verifiable evidence to prove it. If they are simply claiming the audio has been enhanced but not overdubbed or edited, then the above email is highly misleading.

    Unison officials are circulating emails that are highly prejudicial to the investigation. As they have attempted to influence the investigation, it is now imperative that an external investigation is conducted and they commission their own forensic audio analysis. If the recordings have had any audio enhancement, it should be quite simple to provide an unenhanced copy of the recording. If there are edits or overdubs present, this would quite clearly show that the whole allegation is baseless. If however, there have simply been a few tweaks to suppress background noise and improve the audibility of the tape, then the people who have circulated this email have some very serious questions to answer. I am highy suspicious that there is only one sentence fromw hat is presumably a lengthy report, contained in the above email with no context and no description of the nature of the tampering.

    The claims in the above email are a matter of the upmost seriousness. I will be contacting John Burgess to request that he gets a copy of the forensic audio report. I will then review it on his behalf and publish whether this has exposed the tape or simply been misconstrued by people who are not technically qualified to understand what is being said. Either way, the truth has to be told.

    One thing is completely clear to me. There is a concerted campaign by the upper echelons of Unison to shut down the debate on the malpractice allegations.