“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
The equivalent of a nuclear bomb has just exploded in the labour and trade union movement. Unison, the biggest union in the country, and a bastion of the old right wing, has shifted dramatically to the left.
The right have held a firm grip over the union for more than 20 years – ever since its formation in reality. But now the left have won an overwhelming majority in the elections for the NEC, with over 40 left-wingers elected to the union’s leading body.
This result will send shockwaves across the whole trade union movement. Importantly, it is a heavy blow to Keir Starmer and the right-wing clique that currently controls the Labour Party.
The choice for Unison members in this election was clear: either a union that always seeks to compromise with the Tories and the employers, whether it is over pay or pensions, pulling its punches; or a proud, fighting union that will be worthy of its members.
That is why the candidates standing under the banner #TimeForRealChange have done so tremendously well.
The union has always represented the dead hand of the bureaucracy: closing down branches and witch-hunting activists. In the face of continual attacks, the union has largely rolled over.
In the famous pension’s dispute in 2011, for example, where there was a head of steam building up for a real fight with the government, the Unison leadership pulled the plug and accepted a rotten deal.
Enough is enough
No wonder there has been an increasing desire for change amongst Unison members. There has been increasing frustration with the union, which has failed to take up the fight in their interests.
Instead, the right-wing leadership has always attempted to dampen the mood and lower expectations. They have continually undermined the potential for action. This suited their cosy relationship with the employers and Labour’s right wing.
As a result, Unison members – from cleaners to refuse workers to nurses – have been plagued with low wages and poor working conditions for decades. Many have been in the frontline of this pandemic, risking their lives, but with little reward, apart from a wage cut. This disgrace has to end. Enough is enough.
Danger of sectarianism
The left could have easily won the general secretary elections earlier this year. But shamefully the left vote was split, with the ‘no hopers’ Roger MacKenzie and Hugo Pierre refusing to stand aside, which robbed the left of a victory.
Paul Holmes, with the support of the rank and file, could have been the general secretary, but for this ridiculous display of prestige politics.
While McAnea got 47.7% of the vote, the combined vote of the three left candidates was 52.15%. A united left campaign would have dramatically increased this support.
Even in this NEC election, the sectarian Socialist Party (SP) split the vote in the Northern region male seat to allow the right wing to win. The left candidate got 1208; the SP candidate got 1016; and the right-winger got 1227 – a majority of only 19. Sectarianism ruins the left chances once again!
As they say: “With so-called friends like these, who needs enemies.”
Despite this foolishness, in the general secretary election, Paul Holmes came second with 45,000 votes, and with the highest percentage vote of any left-wing candidate in the union’s history.
Paul’s campaign created a real momentum, and this was put to great effect in these NEC elections. This drew in a new layer of activists, especially young workers, who were keen to fight.
The victory for the left in the NEC election represents a sea change, with major implications – not only for the union, but for the whole labour movement. At last, the rule of the right wing within the union has come to an end.
It will also have important ramifications within the Labour Party. In the past, the Unison leadership – through its Labour Link section – propped up the right wing within Labour.
Under pressure, they nominated Corbyn for Labour leader in 2015 and 2016, after they were forced to consult with the membership. In 2020, however, without any consultation, they backed ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer.
The union’s representatives on the Labour NEC were always right-wingers. Rather than carrying union policy into the party, they have acted as a transmission belt for the interests of the Labour right wing into the union.
Wendy Nichols is a right-winger who represents Unison on Labour’s NEC. But she was appointed. Whenever she has stood for election – whether it was for the Unison NEC, or the union’s Labour Link committee – she has been defeated. And yet, as if by magic, she appears on Labour’s NEC, becoming chair of Labour’s powerful organisational sub-committee.
Until now, there has been a revolving door between Unison and Labour HQs. Unison has provided a number of prominent full-time staff to the Labour Party. This includes Emilie Oldknow (OBE), who, as Labour’s then-director of governance, shot to fame in the leaked report that exposed the anti-Corbyn clique operating inside the party.
Oldknow stood down from this position in 2018, and became an assistant general secretary of Unison. She is also married to Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health spokesman.
Following the leaked report’s release, Oldknow attempted to sue the Labour Party, saying that the document and its contents were “likely to cause serious harm to [her] reputation”. She lost one legal battle to force the party to disclose who leaked the report.
Meanwhile, this scandalous report has been kicked into the long grass by the right wing, who are keen to cover up their tracks.
Such people were in effect operating as a fifth column in the Labour Party, sabotaging the chances of a left Labour government. How can they continue to keep and justify their highly-paid positions in the union? That is a question for the union’s new NEC.
Full-time officials have to be made accountable to the members. Careerists have no place in the union. The union must be swept clean from top to bottom. In this way, Unison can become a fighting union on behalf of the membership.
The right wing, and the ruling class that stands behind them, will not take this left victory in Unison lying down. They will do everything in their power to challenge, disrupt, and intimidate the left.
However, the left has gained such a big majority that it will be difficult for them to challenge the result. But the left must be prepared for such shenanigans.
The left will face many challenges in the coming period. They need to unleash the pent-up potential within the rank and file. They must give full backing to workers who are prepared to take industrial action.
Above all, the union needs to work out a strategy – industrial and political – to take forward the interests of the membership. This is essential in this epoch of capitalist crisis; a period in which the bosses are going on the offensive.
There is much to do. With a bold leadership that will not bend, the union can become the pride of the trade union movement.
Seize the moment
The developments in Unison should be viewed in a wider context. There is a radicalisation taking place generally.
Voting will be opening soon in the Unite general secretary elections. At the moment, there is an openly right-wing candidate, Gerrard Coyne, and three others who stand on the left. It would be preferable to have a single left candidate.
From the outset, we have backed Howard Beckett as the best candidate. He could certainly defeat Coyne, given the grassroots support he has galvanised.
It is vital that Unite remains on the left. An alliance between Unite, Unison, and the other left unions would be a powerful force within the trade union movement and the Labour Party. It could change the whole balance of forces.
We are in a period of transformation in the working-class movement. Given the deep crisis of capitalism and the gathering employers’ offensive, such a left force – armed with a militant socialist programme – could turn the tables.
We must seize the opportunity. We have everything to play for.