Unison’s General Secretary election: the half-way mark

By Jon Rogers

UNISON is our largest trade union, and those who care about the future of our movement must necessarily be concerned for the future of UNISON. Those who care about the future of UNISON must want to see change in our trade union.

UNISON has not been growing over recent years – at least not according to the official returns which the Union makes to the Certification Officer. The number of members contributing to the General Fund (i.e. paying subscriptions) according to the earliest return readily accessible online, for 2003, was 1,301,000. The equivalent figure in the most recent return published online, for 2018, was 1,204,500. That decline of 7.4% over those fifteen years may well have been arrested – even reversed – more recently, and in any case compares favourably to the plight of the movement generally over the same period, during which trade union membership fell by 14% from 7.38 million to 6.35 million, but it is certainly not a triumph for UNISON’s leadership.

Nor has UNISON been delivering improving living standards for our members. Take the example of local government workers – the lowest point on the national pay spine is now barely 3% above the minimum wage, as opposed to 25% twenty years ago. And a typical local government worker on the equivalent of the old spinal column point (SCP) 28 is now on just over one and a half times the minimum wage, as opposed to two and a half times when the current General Secretary first took office twenty years ago.

For those who want to see change in UNISON, the half-way marker in the current General Secretary election, with nominations made but no votes yet cast, does not offer many grounds for optimism. As reported by Labourlist (though not yet on the UNISON website), four candidates have exceeded the various thresholds to make it onto the ballot paper as follows;

  • Christina McAnea – 212 branches, nine regions, five service groups (and the National Executive Council)
  • Roger McKenzie – 113 branches, one region, one service group
  • Paul Holmes – 102 branches, two regions, one service group
  • Hugo Pierre – 31 branches

The nominations process saw a significant rise in branch turnout, with 458 of UNISON’s 834 participating branches nominating a candidate compared to just 373 branches casting nominations in the last general secretary election.

The manifesto of the clear frontrunner, Christina McAnea, does not offer the change which UNISON needs. However, McAnea is plainly the candidate the others have now to try to beat, benefiting from the support the bulk of those who backed Dave Prentis in previous elections and some of those who supported Heather Wakefield last time. Christina McAnea has also gained support from those who feel – not unreasonably – that a trade union with a million women members should elect a woman as General Secretary, and has particularly strong support in UNISON’s influential Scottish Region, where Dave Prentis received very few nominations five years ago.

Whilst, in every previous UNISON General Secretary election, the candidate with the most nominations has gone on to win the most votes, the position of this year’s front runner, whilst commanding, may not be invulnerable. The following table shows the percentage of all nominations in the current and two preceding General Secretary elections, with the percentage of votes in the previous elections;


Candidate Nominations 2020 Nominations 2015 Votes 2015 Nominations 2010 Votes 2010
Dave Prentis   54.8% 49.4% 81.7% 67.3%
Christina McAnea 47.5%        
Roger McKenzie 24.1%        
Heather Wakefield   21.8% 26.4%    
Paul Holmes 22.0%     11.5% 13.0%
John Burgess   16.7% 11.6%    
Roger Bannister   6.7% 12.6% 6.8% 19.7%
Hugo Pierre 6.5%        


Even if these few figures were sufficient to support an argument about a relationship between the proportion of nominations and the proportion of votes – beyond the obvious observation that, previously, whoever got the most nominations also got the most votes, there are sound reasons to think that this election may be different, and so drawing any conclusions based upon this data would be premature.

For the first time in UNISON’s history, two senior officials are standing, neither of whom is the incumbent, indeed there is no incumbent candidate. Although well behind the front runner in nominations at this stage, Roger McKenzie has exceeded the number of nominations won by Heather Wakefield five years ago, and seems to promise an equally lively campaign.

Also for the first time in UNISON’s history, a rank and file candidate – Paul Holmes – has secured the nomination of a national Service Group Executive (for Local Government – representing more than half the Union’s membership) and two Regional Councils, as well as more than 100 branches. Paul has the widest support of any rank and file challenger for the position of UNISON General Secretary.

Those supporting the campaigns of both Roger McKenzie and Paul Holmes will have emerged from the nominations phase eyeing the possibility of victory in what each team may have hoped would be a fiercely contested three horse race.

As was the case five years ago, however, a divided opposition to the leading candidate in an election in which the National Executive Council (NEC) has decided that voters won’t have a preferential voting system (although they themselves used preferential voting to decide their nomination) could well mean that the front placed candidate is elected without winning a majority of the votes cast.

It is in this context that the one candidate who clearly does not think that he can win this election – the fourth horse, Hugo Pierre of the Socialist Party – has called for the three “candidates for change” to get together to discuss a unified platform for a single candidate to take on Christina McAnea. It is of course possible, as Holmes’ supporters at Socialist Appeal believe, that this is an offer made only in order that it should be rejected in order to justify Pierre continuing his campaign.

Certainly, since Paul Holmes is running for General Secretary on the programme of UNISON Action Broad Left – drafted with the full support of the Socialist Party members who were part of that group – and having been endorsed by a meeting of the Steering Committee of that organisation following a hustings at which both he and Hugo Pierre spoke, the welcome conversion of Hugo and his supporters to the cause of unity, if genuine, is – to say the least – belated.

However, UNISON members away from the leadership of the campaigns of Holmes and McKenzie will be perplexed if their favoured candidates do not at least engage with the proposal from Hugo Pierre that a discussion should take place. The numbers of nominations discussed above cannot – in any circumstances – determine the outcome of the coming election, but they point in a particular direction, and it is not the direction of the positive change which UNISON requires.

To understand how we can get to the point at which, half way through an election for General Secretary, a candidate can seriously suggest a discussion between candidates about who should step aside – and expect to be taken seriously in so doing, it is necessary to look back at UNISON’s history. UNISON has nothing – on the left – to match the aspirations of the United Left in UNITE or Left Unity in PCS, organisations in which the broad left (in the real meaning of those words) could – at least potentially – come together, including lay activists and paid officials to agree a programme for the Union and settle on a candidate for General Secretary.

There are a number of reasons why such a formation has never emerged in UNISON. The most important is the impact of the visceral hostility to “factions” which has been expressed by the faction that has been running UNISON since its creation. This has created an environment in which paid staff of the Union are afraid to be seen talking to some lay activists on the left – a circumstance which has reinforced a prejudice in favour of “lay only” organisation on the part of many of those activists.

The legacy of this absence is the chasm of mutual incomprehension between supporters of Paul Holmes, some of whom genuinely believe that Roger McKenzie – endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott – is not a candidate “of the left” because of compromises he has had to make in the past to hold on to his job, and supporters of Roger McKenzie, some of whom, not being part of the hard slog of attempting to build a democratic rank and file organisation, do not understand the resentment of rank and file activists involved in that project when senior officials raise a red flag at election time. While it is extremely unlikely that a single meeting during an election campaign could bridge this chasm, the beginning of such a dialogue would be worthwhile whatever it might or might not lead to right now.

Of course, a secondary reason why UNISON has not been able to develop a rooted and respected rank and file organisation, even on a “lay member only” basis, is the fissiparous nature of the “organised” left in general, and the collective self-obsession of the Socialist Party in particular. This has meant that however hard many activists have worked over the past 27 years to build a rank and file organisation, disagreements around, in anticipation of or as a consequence of five-yearly General Secretary elections have been sufficient to ensure that everything that is built is periodically demolished.

A wise old friend and comrade offered two hopes for any attempt to agree a single candidate for change in the UNISON General Secretary election – Bob Hope and no hope. It would be wonderful to be able to prove such cynicism wrong, but if pessimism of the intellect does turn out to be more useful as a guide to understanding on this occasion than optimism of the will then perhaps an ongoing dialogue between supporters of Holmes and McKenzie will continue to offer some hope of future change.

Those of us with only our votes to cast, and wanting to see change in UNISON, will have to await the outcome of any discussions which do take place before deciding where to place our cross.

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.

 Image: Part of the UNISON contingent at the 2016 Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Rally; Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.