In a triumph for grassroots activism and organisation, Paul Holmes has received more than 100 nominations to be general secretary of Unison. This is some 60% more than any lay activist has ever achieved in the history of our union.
However, this doesn't tell the whole story. In total, the branches that nominated Paul represent more than quarter of a million members, drawn from all of the service groups in the union.
Paul secured the support of Unison's largest local government branch, Birmingham Local Government; its largest region, the North West; and the largest service group, Local Government, which represents 750,000 members.
This is an enormous achievement when you consider that two of Paul's rivals are assistant general secretaries, who appear regularly in Unison communications to activists and on the website.
A further complication is that one of these, Roger McKenzie, claims to be on the left and a candidate for ‘change’. However, until a few months ago, he was a loyal supporter of Prentis – even supporting him in the last general secretary election against the left and Heather Wakefield, the head of local government, who was critical of Prentis.
Despite this, McKenzie has made much of the support he has received from Jeremy Corbyn and other left MPs. The irony is that Paul Holmes' record is more akin to that of Corbyn before he became Labour leader. McKenzie, meanwhile, is comparable to Andy Burnham – i.e. a loyal supporter of the right wing, until a sudden opportunist tack to the left in order to gain support.
The recent vote on the Unison NEC provides an indication of where Roger McKenzie's campaign lies politically.
When he was eliminated in the vote, there was a straight vote between the right-wing candidate, Christine McAnea, and the left-wing candidate, Paul Holmes. But, rather than vote for Paul, McKenzie’s supporters either backed the right-wing candidate, McAnea, or abstained. In other words, they preferred a right-wing general secretary to a left-wing rank-and-file one.
This speaks volumes about this candidate for ‘change’ – who, in reality, offers no change at all. It is like a game of musical chairs for these assistant general secretaries.
The real left candidate who will bring in genuine change is Paul Holmes. And all the left should get behind him.
We've made it to 105 nominating bodies! I'd like to thank everyone who has helped to get us where we are. The real work starts now - we need your help - contact https://t.co/Wzyif9BCBf to get involved.#TheMembersCandidate #Paul4GenSec #UNISON #NoGoingBackToNormal pic.twitter.com/dTbUrONSFm— Paul Holmes #Paul4GenSec (@Paul4GenSec) September 28, 2020
Muddying the waters
However, there appears to be a problem.
Hugo Pierre, a Socialist Party member, gained just over the threshold to get on the ballot paper. Nevertheless, he fell over 70 nominations behind Paul. Pierre also stood as a rank-and-file activist, opposed to the bureaucracy of the union.
After initially losing the vote to become the agreed left candidate at a hustings organised by Unison Action Broad Left, Pierre suggested that the left candidates have a nomination race to decide who should carry the banner to the ballot stage. Paul Holmes clearly won such a race. So, to be consistent, Pierre should stand down in Paul's favour.
But Pierre has now changed his tune, issuing an ‘open letter’ on social media. In this, he suggests that he and Paul should meet with Roger McKenzie to decide a joint candidate to face the other right-wing assistant general secretary, Christine McAnea.
Rather than doing the right thing and standing down in favour of Paul, as the main left challenger, Hugo Pierre is muddying the water and deliberately throwing a lifeline to McKenzie. In effect, he wants Paul to stand down in favour of McKenzie!
Supporting the bureaucracy
This is despite the fact that Pierre’s supporters – in an article in the Socialist from 9 September – have attacked McKenzie as a supporter of the witch-hunts within the union, stating that he is basically no different to Prentis.
“Two of the candidates are current unelected assistant general secretaries – Christine McAnea and Roger McKenzie – who have been part of the Prentis machine for over a decade,” wrote the Socialist. “During that time, neither has demonstrated the slightest opposition to the Prentis regime…In fact, they have been open supporters of ‘team Dave’ in his campaigns.”
“Neither have spoken out about the disgraceful witch-hunts against socialists in the union,” the same article continues. “Roger McKenzie, who was part of Dave’s election campaign, was seen by Prentis as a safe pair of hands.”
Now Hugo Pierre is saying McKenzie should be given consideration as the ‘united’ left candidate!
Such a ‘brilliant’ tactic, if accepted, would result in a run-off between two members of team Dave Prentis. So why should the real left candidate, Paul Holmes, stand aside to allow one of the bureaucrats to win?
The Socialist Party pulled this stunt in the 2010 and 2015 general election campaigns, providing themselves with a cover to maintain their candidate in the race. This has nothing to do with ‘left unity’, which the Socialist Party has abandoned in Unison, PCS, and other trade unions. Rather, this has everything to do with narrow prestige politics. The ‘open letter’ is simply a publicity stunt – nothing more. If Hugo Pierre continues to stand it can only be as a spoiler.
UNISON members should reject this manoeuvre and make sure – if Hugo Pierre does stand – they vote for Paul, as the only rank-and file-candidate who has a real chance of winning.
In this key election, Paul Holmes can marshal a considerable campaign, made up of genuine working class fighters who have supported him in his online meetings.
It is no accident that Tower Hamlets branch – engaged in a determined battle against attacks from a Labour council – has supported Paul. He has made the important commitment to take only a worker's wage, and to increase branch funding to 50%.
This means his challenge is a real grassroots campaign, which will end once and for all the stranglehold the bureaucracy has over our union. He will serve as a worker and provide the workers in our union with real power.
We've made it to 105 nominations. phase 2 of our campaign starts now. We will continue to run an open, transparent and enthusiastic campaign. There will be no deals behind closed doors. Anyone who wants to fight with us to change #UNISON is welcome to join us! #Paul4GenSec pic.twitter.com/KckFiEwKkv— Paul Holmes #Paul4GenSec (@Paul4GenSec) September 28, 2020