Continuity candidate Christina McAnea has been elected General Secretary of public-sector trade union UNISON following a decade of austerity.
The retirement of outgoing General Secretary Dave Prentis presented an opportunity to push back against decades of conservative conciliation by the union’s leadership. In 2015, the last General Secretary election ended under a cloud. Amid allegations of collusion between Prentis supporters, union officials and employers, ‘Team Dave’ failed to get over 50% of the vote for the first time in the union’s history.
Had the three challengers, all to the left of the Prentis group, been able to agree to unite behind one candidate, the leadership of our union could have begun a process of long overdue change. Under these circumstances, impelled by trying to build a fight against the pay freeze in the absence of any serious lead from the Unison tops, activists from across the union’s left came together under the banner of UNISON Action. The aim was to challenge for positions at every level of the union in an attempt to transform it into a fighting, democratic organisation.
UNISON Action has had some successes, hosting impressive conference fringe events, making incremental gains on the National and Service Group Executives and developing a social media presence. However, attempts to agree a single left candidate were thwarted at the end of last year. A majority of the UNISON Action Steering Committee agreed to support Paul Holmes; however the Socialist Party chose not to accept this and stood Hugo Pierre, who finished fourth out of four.
Although the Paul Holmes campaign did not win the election, it did achieve 43,000 votes, a third of the total cast and has energised new groups of activists within the union. It won the endorsement of parts of the union which have not historically been engaged with an organised left and was the most successful left-wing challenge in the history of the union in recent elections.
Third-placed candidate Roger McKenzie was backed by Jeremy Corbyn, which helped his campaign build some support. However, in practice McKenzie’s key supporters revealed themselves to be much closer to the union establishment than to the left. At the National Executive Council where a vote to nominate Paul Holmes was a real possibility, and McAnea the only other option, some of McKenzie’s supporters voted for McAnea while the rest abstained, enabling McAnea’s minority support on the NEC to deliver a nomination for the status quo.
The Paul Holmes campaign shows some of the potential for a genuine grassroots broad left organisation that transforms our union into a fighting force. To defeat the entrenched right-wing in Unison it will be necessary to go much further than the Holmes campaign this year and previous other left campaigns in the union, in order to reach the vast majority of members who still did not vote in this election. This is why we argue for an open, democratic broad left which is based on organising and struggle, in which thousands of Unison activists representing hundreds of thousands of members could see a non-sectarian space for them to come together, discuss in a constructive way, resist the employers and get around the bureaucracy.
What is needed is a flexible yet principled approach to ensuring the best possible chance of winning a fighting left NEC in the forthcoming elections. We cannot afford any longer to have left candidates standing against each other in these elections. Concretely this should mean that incumbent left wingers on the NEC are not challenged by other lefts – and that the left groupings in the union must, as a minimum, coordinate to avoid clashes and to ensure the right is challenged by the strongest-possible left candidate in every seat. UNISON faces enormous challenges in all sectors, from healthcare to social care, local government to education, utilities to transport and other services. The right-wing incumbent leadership will be utterly incapable of defending members under these circumstances, as their model of social partnership is completely off the table.
We need a left leadership of UNISON, one able to organise amidst the Covid and post-pandemic situation, willing to lead from the front, capable of delivering support to members who wish to fight back, with a clear perspective that determined action is the most effective way of defending and delivering better for our members. If you agree with us, join Socialist Alternative!