The UNISON General Secretary election in the light of the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn

As part of a debate on the UNISON General Secretary election, Jon Rogers makes a case for supporting Paul Holmes below.  Earlier this week we carried a piece from Andrew Berry in support of Roger McKenzie.

By Jon Rogers

The well-attended online rally in defence of Jeremy Corbyn on 30th October heard contributions from two of the four contenders in the election for UNISON General Secretary. One was Roger McKenzie, the candidate supported by Jeremy himself, one of UNISON’s Assistant General Secretaries (speaking in a personal capacity). The other – Paul Holmes – is the leading rank and file contender, a long serving member of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) and Secretary of the Union’s Kirklees local government branch.

Labour Hub has carried an article advocating support for Roger, and asked for an article from a supporter of Paul’s in order to carry on the debate. As someone who knows both comrades well and respects each of them, I decided only in the last few weeks to support Paul.

I was obviously influenced by Paul’s various campaign pledges, which together set out a convincing and comprehensive programme to transform our union. These include:

·       50% of members’ subscriptions income going to the branches. Give branches the resources they need to do the job: whether that be funding or lay-directed officers

·       Selling UNISON’s two ‘prestige’ office buildings in central London and re-investing the proceeds into branches and organising, and a new more functional HQ in the Midlands with good transport links

·       A racism audit of UNISON, taking inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, so the allegations at the heart of the Labour Leaks scandal can be dealt with.

None of these were the absolutely decisive factor for me though. A newly elected General Secretary can (and will) have policy objectives, and will need to campaign and win support for these within the union’s structures. A socialist General Secretary with a transformative programme will face obstacles from conservative (with a small “c”) forces within UNISON.

With the shocking and divisive decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn emphasising how far and how fast a tide of reaction is rising in the Labour Party, leading us all to reflect upon the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the Labour left during the brief period of Corbyn’s leadership, the factor which was vital in making my mind up in favour of Paul seems all the more topical and relevant.

Paul Holmes is not simply a candidate from the rank and file (in UNISON parlance, a “lay member” rather than a paid official) who is committed to continue drawing his existing salary in order to remain in touch with the day to day existence of the membership. Paul is also a candidate of the rank and file, selected by the left formation within the Union. Looking back at the experience of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party helps to underline the importance of this point.

The speed with which the Labour Party’s right-wing establishment has been able to reassert the authority which it had barely conceded to the left during Corbyn’s tenure as Leader of the Opposition has underlined the crucial weakness of the Labour left going into that wholly unanticipated period.

Those of us who had shared the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott through the preceding decades were too few, too disorganised and too divided to rise usefully to the challenge of supporting the newly elected Leader in 2015. Although Momentum was created in an attempt to crystallise the (ahem) momentum from Corbyn’s Leadership bid and to provide support, it has (yet) to show that it can do much other than (the very valuable tasks of) organising electorally within the Party and staging showpiece events, not least because of its well-documented lack of internal democracy.

Imagine a counterfactual history in which something closer in scale to Momentum could have emerged from McDonnell’s 2007 leadership bid – which perhaps it could have, had the union leaderships at the time lobbied for John to make it on to the ballot paper so that the campaign could have reached a wider audience. If that body could have organised supporters of the politics of the Socialist Campaign Group throughout the CLPs and trade unions over the following years – then you can rerun the history of the past five years and get quite a different outcome.

The Corbyn leadership had a tenuous hold on part of the “top” of the Party without having a well-organised support base embedded in the Party “lower down”. This is precisely the fate that could all too easily await a socialist General Secretary of UNISON elected in 2020, who would be elected to head up the actually existing union bureaucracy, which has a long track record of suppressing members wishing to take action, concentrating power and resources at the centre and using disciplinary tools to excise rank and file socialists from positions of influence.

Without a countervailing force, based upon rank and file organisation, a socialist General Secretary could find themselves besieged in their office much as the previous leader of the Labour Party was besieged in his. In these circumstances socialists looking at the candidates for UNISON General Secretary to decide for whom to vote need to look beyond the ballot and ask themselves whose candidacy offers the best chance of taking power for the rank and file membership.

Paul Holmes has the backing of a network of left-wing activists which has the potential to evolve into a democratic rank and file movement within the union, and which already has the influence within UNISON to have delivered Paul over 100 branch nominations, the nominations of two Regional Councils (the South East and the North West – the largest Region in the Union – and, in an unprecedented coup for a rank and file candidate, the nomination of the Local Government Service Group Executive, representing half the membership of the Union.

As General Secretary, Holmes would have the support of the organised rank and file to take on and transform the official structures of the union – for example by campaigning for the NEC and Conference to support his campaign objective of extending the election of senior officials – much as Mark Serwotka was able to rely upon the support of the established Left Unity grouping within PCS when he faced sabotage upon first taking office.

Paul Holmes is the only candidate in the UNISON General Secretary election whose candidacy has emerged from a project to build the democratic rank and file organisation which the union so badly needs (and which, if it already existed, could have hoped to avert the perennial problem of multiple left candidates).

It is, therefore Paul’s candidacy which deserves the support of socialists focusing on the future of UNISON, our largest trade union, and therefore upon the future of our movement.

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.