Campaigning is underway in the elections for the NEC of Unison, the largest union in Britain. We spoke with two of the left candidates running – comrades standing on a socialist programme, hoping to build a fighting leadership.

Campaigning is underway in the elections for the NEC of Unison, the largest union in Britain. We spoke with two of the left candidates running – comrades who are standing on a socialist programme and hoping to build a fighting leadership.

The candidate nomination process for the Unison National Executive Committee (NEC) elections is currently underway. Nominations on 5 March.

These NEC elections are pivotal for the future of the union. They follow on from the general secretary elections last year, which saw a surge in support for the socialist candidate, Paul Holmes.

The deep crisis of capitalism has already led to over a decade of severe austerity and attacks on the working class. Local government and public sector workers are in the firing line, with a tsunami of council cuts and a public sector pay freeze on the cards. And no doubt there will be more attacks to come, with Rishi Sunak announcing the latest Tory budget this week. 

It is therefore vital that Unison, the largest trade union in the country, adopts a fighting stance to militantly oppose these attacks. This requires a fighting leadership. And the upcoming Unison NEC elections are an important step towards this.

A raft of left-wing candidates are standing. Amongst these are Terry McPartlan, for the male North East seat; and Lilly Boulby, for the women’s young members seat.

Despite their busy campaign schedules, we recently had the chance to speak with Terry and Lilly about the challenges facing public sector workers, and why they are running for the Unison NEC.

Socialist Appeal: Could you tell us a bit about your experience in the union and in organising more generally? 

Terry McPartlan: I’ve been active in Unison and its predecessors since 1983. During this time, I’ve held a number of roles in my branch and in the region. When I was the Education and Children’s Services convenor in Gateshead, I fought against academies, funding cuts, and redundancies. As convenor, I also recruited 14 new shop stewards to my branch.

In 1980 I joined the Labour Party Young Socialists and played an active role in supporting Tony Benn’s deputy Labour leadership campaign, the miners’ strike, the struggle of the Liverpool city councillors, and the fight against the Poll Tax. More recently, I also helped organise support for Corbyn’s leadership campaign.

Lilly Boulby: I’m relatively new to the union. But I’m an active socialist and Labour Party member. I’ve taken part in demonstrations supporting the climate strikes, and in the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. And I've spoken at Labour Party conference fringe meetings in favour of restoring Clause IV.

I’m a part-time worker and part-time postgraduate student. At university, I’m also part of my local Marxist society, where we discuss theory and intervene in struggles on campus, such as the UCU strikes that have taken place in recent years.

Socialist Appeal: Paul Holmes’ campaign for general secretary revealed the enormous potential for a left victory within Unison. What do you think the chances are for the left in the NEC elections? And what this could mean for the union? 

Terry: There’s every chance the left can win. None of the candidates in the general secretary election were prepared to argue in support of ‘business as usual’. I reckon that the programme the left is campaigning on connects with what members want.

It’s clear to me that Paul Holmes could have won, but he was hampered by sectarianism, which was a disgrace. Winning a majority on the NEC would mean that we could start to loosen the bureaucratic stranglehold on the union, and turn it into a genuinely lay member union.

Lilly: We really do have a chance to transform the union into one that fights for its members, instead of one that compromises with the bosses. I joined Unison last summer. To see all the enthusiasm surrounding Paul’s campaign was fantastic. People in the union really do want change. Coming off the back of that, I think the left have a very good chance of winning in the NEC elections.

Socialist Appeal: As left-wing candidates, representing rank-and-file members, could you lay out some of the key policies that you’ll push for on the NEC?

Terry: Fighting the curse of low pay has to be a huge priority. Unison has singularly failed to do this effectively. We also need to support the struggles of union branches against the cuts and threats to members’ terms and conditions. And we need to democratise the union. I support the election of all full-time officials; giving more money to branches; and fighting for socialist policies in the Labour Party.

Lilly: I think we need to fight against the ways in which young workers are particularly exploited, such as pay banding based on age, and also zero-hour contracts. When I first started working at 17, I earned £3.89 an hour! All workers deserve safety, security, and sick pay in their workplace. And it’s the union’s job to fight for them.

Socialist Appeal: There is no end in sight to the current crisis of capitalism. Workers are set to face enormous attacks. Already we’ve seen a callous public-sector pay freeze. How do you think the union should respond?

Terry: Unison needs to punch with all its weight. We need to oppose all cuts, all privatisations, and all attacks on contracts and wage levels. The experience of Tower Hamlets will be repeated elsewhere.

Too often, Unison nationally has offered tea and sympathy. But what is needed is solidarity and militant action. The Tories are trying to divide sections of health workers and other low-paid layers from the rest of the public sector. We need coordinated action across all sectors to defend members from the pay freeze. 

Lilly: There’s no doubt that it will be workers who continue to bear the brunt of paying for the crisis and the debts that have been accrued. We’ve also been struggling under austerity measures for over ten years. We’re at a point where young people entering the workplace today haven’t known anything but attacks on living and working conditions. We need the union to fight for its members and push back against the draconian measures that have been forced onto us. 

Socialist Appeal: Unison is the largest union in the country. Beyond protecting its own members, what role do you believe it could – and should – play in the struggles that are around the corner? 

Terry: Unison members are at the heart of every community: in hospitals, schools, depots, town halls, and universities. Unison is dominant in the public sector. The union needs to stand fully behind our members and play a leading role in the struggles that emerge.

Lilly: Unison must link up with other unions, not attack them! I have been disappointed to see Christina McAnea attacking and criticising other unions. Unison and the TUC need to be fighting anti-trade union laws that stop solidarity action. Workers everywhere are facing the same issues, and we need a united fightback. 

Socialist Appeal: Unison also has a significant influence and weight in the Labour Party. In light of the ongoing campaign for an immediate Labour recall conference, what role could the union play in winning this demand, and in fighting for socialist policies in the Labour Party? 

Terry: The Labour Link means that Unison sends two people to Labour’s NEC. So a left victory in the Unison NEC elections could make an important difference. There is currently a bitter struggle going on in the Labour Party. And with the left in control of the union’s NEC, Unison could add its weight to the call for a recall conference, and could play a major role in arguing for a clear socialist programme.

Lilly: Young people were hugely supportive of the left turn in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. I joined the Labour Party in 2017 because of Corbyn; and thousands of young people did the same. There can be no unity in the party between the socialist membership, who want to fight for change, and the right wing, who are intent on stopping us at every turn. With a left NEC in Unison, we can join the calls for a recall conference, and make sure the voices of our members – both in the union and in the party – are heard.