UNISON General Secretary election – continuity or change?

By Jon Rogers

UNISON was twenty-seven years old last month, too old now to be a “Young Member” under the union’s own Rules. It is therefore perhaps appropriate that UNISON members are finally to lose their third General Secretary, Dave Prentis, who has been in office since the union was emerging from its infancy, twenty years ago.

There seem to have been two different UNISONs over the past two decades. There is the triumphant UNISON of official propaganda – the largest union, recruiting hand over fist. It is, according to our President, a reflection of the leadership and hard work of our four-term General Secretary “that we came through the years of austerity and we are now the largest and fastest growing union in the UK.”

That’s one UNISON.

The other UNISON is the one which, over the past twenty years, has twice conceded government-inspired changes to public service pension schemes as we watched, seemingly helpless, while our members’ living standards were savaged by pay restraint under New Labour, Coalition and Tory Governments.

A typical local government worker, earning at the highest point at which there is an entitlement to overtime payments under the terms of the national agreement, now earns just over one and a half times the minimum wage. This compares to two and a half times the minimum wage when Dave Prentis first took office as General Secretary.

Incidentally, official returns to the Certification Officer show a net decline of almost 100,000 subscription-paying UNISON members between 2003 and 2018 ,the earliest and latest figures readily available online at present.

One way to judge the candidates now emerging to contest the vacancy to be left by Dave Prentis is to work out which of the two UNISONs it is that they are hoping to lead. If it is the first UNISON then they will stress continuity, if the second, change.

Nothing in the opaque policy platform published thus far by Christina McAnea, Assistant General Secretary responsible for collective bargaining, hints at any critique of the status quo of the Prentis era. On the other hand, the campaign overview statement of Roger McKenzie, Assistant General Secretary responsible for organising, whilst differing little in substance, repeatedly emphasises the need for change.

As for the third UNISON paid official to have thrown her hat into the ring, National Black Members’ Officer, Margaret Greer, her campaign website is something of a work in progress, so it is a little difficult to make a judgement at this early stage.

Many UNISON activists are strongly of the view that our elected General Secretary should come from the ranks of the lay membership – the “rank and file” – rather than being an official. Of course, all the would-be rank and file contenders for the position of General Secretary find themselves in the “change” camp with Roger McKenzie rather than the “continuity” camp with Christina McAnea.

UNISON’s rank and file left has aspired, on and off, to launch a unified challenge for the leadership of the union in five previous General Secretary elections, but has never yet succeeded in standing fewer than two candidates. No rank and file left-wing candidate has ever secured as much as a third of the vote in any previous election. Full disclosure – the author stood in the 2005 election, securing the second lowest share of the vote of any candidate in a UNISON General Secretary election.

In the latest attempt to find a single rank and file left candidate three UNISON activists put themselves before a well-attended online hustings meeting, organised under the auspices of UNISON Action Broad Left, on Thursday 30th July. Two of them pledged not to proceed with their candidacy if the Broad Left organisation backed another candidate. The three contenders were Paul Holmes, Karen Reissmann and Hugo Pierre.

Paul Holmes, NEC member representing members in local government and Secretary of UNISON’s Kirklees Branch, is a prominent Labour left-winger in the union with a strong record of representing workers over decades. Paul stood in the 2010 General Secretary election with the backing of the former UNISON United Left, coming third behind Prentis and Roger Bannister, a Socialist Party activist, now retired, who has stood in every previous UNISON General Secretary election.

Karen Reissmann, NEC member representing the North West Region, is a health worker activist and a leading light in the Socialist Workers Party who has been a high-profile critic of UNISON’s leadership over issues such as the inadequate recent pay settlement for NHS workers.

Hugo Pierre, NEC member holding one of the seats reserved to represent Black Members, is Education Convenor in the London Borough of Camden and a member of the Socialist Party. Alone among the potential rank and file contenders, Hugo -who would not pledge to step aside if the Broad Left did not choose him – had already initiated his campaign, or rather the Socialist Party had done so for him.

On Sunday 2nd August the Steering Committee of UNISON Action Broad Left agreed to back Paul Holmes as a candidate for General Secretary. This was not unexpected. Although Paul has been suspended both by the union and his employer for several months, the Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled in a previous case that UNISON members who are suspended are eligible to stand for election – and UNISON activists, who are no strangers to politically motivated disciplinary action in the union, won’t have seen this as an impediment to his candidacy.

Whilst Karen Reissmann can be expected to honour her commitment not to pursue her candidacy in the light of this decision to back Paul Holmes, it seems quite possible that Hugo Pierre will pursue his own campaign – his Facebook campaign page was updated with a repeat of an earlier post setting out his policy platform after the Broad Left decision had been taken.

The Socialist Party having, in the recent past, lost key activists in PCS , and therefore their position of influence in that trade union, and also having imploded its own International organisation, may be less likely than ever to discover a sudden affection for unity which exceeds a desire to promote itself as an organisation to union activists in UNISON.

As things stand, it seems that between three and five candidates will now find their way on to the ballot papers which will go out to members in November, bearing in mind that this requires, at a minimum, twenty-five branch nominations. Christina McAnea, Roger McKenzie and Paul Holmes seem certain to make the cut. Hugo Pierre could well do so and Margaret Greer cannot be ruled out at this point.

Where would that leave UNISON members who wanted to use their vote in the General Secretary election to achieve the best possible outcome to change our trade union for the better?

A cynic might observe that if you wanted to change UNISON you wouldn’t start from here.

For many on the left, Roger McKenzie may be seen as part of the UNISON establishment quite as much as Christina McAnea, and this view will reinforce enthusiasm for Paul Holmes as a rank and file candidate, although the evidence of previous elections provides no real grounds for optimism that a rank and file candidate can emerge triumphant.

However, given that voting will be by “simple majority” (first past the post) the uncertainty of a three-way split means that those with great admiration for Paul Holmes, but who would also certainly prefer Roger McKenzie to Christina McAnea, will face quite a dilemma if those three are the only candidates.

If, on the other hand Hugo Pierre does make it onto the ballot paper, then the voting system means that the two rank and file candidates will almost certainly find themselves in a purposeless race for third place in an election in which their presence may simply make it most likely that the candidate standing for the greatest continuity with the status quo will emerge successful.

As to what this means for how UNISON branches should use their power to make nominations between 10th August and 25th September – that’s at least one more blog post…

Jon Rogers was Branch Secretary of Lambeth UNISON from 1992 to 2017 and a member of the National Executive Council of UNISON from 2003 to 2017. He is now retired. He blogs regularly here.