UNISON conference took place in an atmosphere which was at times both tense and fractious. There can be little doubt that the General Secretary, Christina McAnea, as the focal point for the right wing in the union, had a good conference, partially by talking left on getting ‘strike ready’.
However the left, organised under the banner of Time for Real Change (TFRC) although carrying a bruise or two, was by no means beaten, with reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Last year, in a momentous election, candidates standing under the TFRC banner won a significant majority on the National Executive Council (NEC). This is the first time that the left had a majority at the NEC and represented a huge step forward.
Who controls the union?
The past year has been attritional as paid Senior Officers, working alongside McAnea, sought to resist and frustrate the positive and necessary changes that the new NEC sought to implement. Progress has been made, but not without expending vast amounts of time and energy.
In particular, TFRC has rightly been focused on bringing about the election of Senior Officers to make them accountable to the Union and its NEC.
Whilst this battle has lasted a year, the right wing has been quietly but systematically burrowing away in the union to do its best to undermine and frustrate the NEC and TFRC at the Conference, which burst out into the open on the first day.
In reality, the struggle at the conference was about more than internal arguments. It was about whether UNISON is a lay member led union, or led by paid officers, and how we challenge the government in the face of a cost of living crisis.
Conference cannot proceed without adopting and approving the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) Report which deals with order of business.
Under the control of the right wing, they rejected NEC motions calling for a review of legal services, and for a report into the possibility of making Senior Officers electable and accountable to members.
A Socialist Alternative member moved reference back (reconsideration) of the decision to reject the motions calling for the election of Senior Officers.
The SOC responded that Conference could not discuss paid officer positions, and regrettably the conference, in a precursor of the battles to come, sided with the SOC.
Before heading to the motions, the conference saw the presentation of the Annual Report, Financial Report and Presidential Address.
The Chair of the Finance Committee gave an impressive report that clearly linked our finances to the question of the fight to improve members pay and conditions. Compared to the ‘traditional’ dry financial report, this highlighted how effective the TFRC-led NEC can be.
Disruptive tactics from the right
In contrast, the disjointed and disrespectful protests during the Presidential address showed the worst aspects of the right.
With walkouts, back turning, booing and heckling, the right tried to disrupt the conference, with tactics that, alongside inappropriate comments from the speaker’s podium, were to be used repeatedly throughout the conference.
Early motions saw the TFRC-led NEC come under fire, led by those resolutely opposed to the left, for steps taken last year that clarified the key role of the lay NEC. Motion 10 was critical of the NEC and was passed on a show of hands.
Motion 11, carried on a card vote, expressed no confidence in the NEC. There is no precedent in UNISON for this. The NEC, whilst recognising the sovereignty of the conference, needed some time to consider the implications and therefore committed to make a full statement before the conference concluded.
The statement was read out on Friday afternoon. It acknowledged the views of the meeting especially on under-representation of certain sections of the union in some areas (problems which predate the current NEC), whilst committing to implementing actions passed by conference.
The statement reassured some delegates, but did not placate the right. Some walked out again, others made speeches which had clearly been typed out before the NEC statement was known. This laid bare for some the issues at stake were not the actions of the NEC, but the existence of a left-led NEC.
Socialist Alternative members, who are an active part of TFRC, supported the NEC statement as a necessary step, as we seek to build our support across the union, whilst remaining committed to building a democratic and fighting union.
There were other motions, critical of the NEC, explicitly or implicitly. Motion 9 was critical of the NEC for under-representation of Black members.
This was supported by the left (after a healthy debate at a TFRC fringe meeting) based on the actions contained in the motion to improve participation, whilst not accepting some of the more strident criticisms.
Motion 7, on implementing Nolan Principles was lost after the intervention of a Socialist Alternative delegate, who changed the view of Conference on this motion. Of the two significant rule changes one was lost, one carried.
Finally on the last afternoon, a motion criticising the NEC for not inviting Angela Rayner to address Conference was lost. This came after a debate that highlighted her comments in February that police ought to “shoot first” and “ask questions later”, revealing the rotten approach of the current Labour ‘opposition’.
McAnea in her speech looked two ways. On the one hand, this meant criticising the NEC (by inference), while on the othercalling on the union to be ‘strike ready’ – a call well received by many delegates. The motions above and the call to be strike ready are the key themes that must be pursued in the coming months.
By building on these motions, the key task now facing the NEC is to develop a clear fighting strategy which can give all UNISON members confidence that they can begin to confront the cost of living crisis. This will importantly mean linking up with other unions and activists in a programme of escalated action, which can see the trade union movement strike a decisive blow against this government.
The conference was a difficult experience at times for the left, but one in which the opportunity is there for TFRC to come out stronger and win over the ‘non aligned’ activists, more organised and focussed on the issues that matter to our members.
That mood of activists will change under the intense pressure of events over the next few months, especially if the union offers clear and decisive leadership.
Learning the lessons to take the left forward
The left must reflect, assess, and learn from this conference. We have a strong NEC, but there is a need to broaden the involvement of branch activists and give particular attention to how to organise in branches, the Regions and the Self Organised Groups. The two TFRC planning meetings held at Brighton are a good precursor to this, but the work must continue.
The potential for TFRC to transform the union, despite some setbacks, remains undimmed. With the correct approach and strategy, TFRC can and must consolidate its base of support in next year’s NEC elections and cement its leadership at the head of the union.
Socialist Alternative members at the conference had a great response to our ideas – 79 copies of our newspaper were sold, £911 raised in donations to our Fighting Fund and new people attended our first ever fringe meeting at a UNISON conference.
If you are a member of UNISON and want to get involved with Socialist Alternative, we urge you to get in touch!