UNISON election – lessons for the left

By Jon Rogers

The results of the UNISON General Secretary election are not surprising, with the appearance of change masking substantive continuity. However, beneath the surface of the headline results, there is more going on.

The headline change is – of course – that for the first time in its 27 years, UNISON, the union with a million women members, has elected, in our sixth General Secretary election, a female General Secretary. This is a dramatic and newsworthy development. The appearance of change in the headline news about this election masks some fundamental continuities, however.

It’s not just that Christina McAnea was described, by some others – against her own vigorous objections, as “the continuity candidate”. Her support base exhibited considerable continuity with “Team Dave” who had backed her predecessor, former General Secretary Dave Prentis. Her percentage of the vote (47.7%) was just a shade below his percentage five years before (49.4%) – which means that another aspect of continuity is that, for the second time, a General Secretary has been elected without a majority of the vote. Disappointingly for all those who care about our union, further continuity was exhibited by the turnout, which hovered around the 10% mark, to which it had fallen by 2015.

Table One – votes for successful candidates and their opponents in UNISON General Secretary elections this century

Votes for Prentis (%)Votes for McAnea(%)Votes for all opponents (%)
200056044
200576024
201067033
201549051
202004852

Beneath this continuity, there was considerable change in the balance between the votes cast for officials and for rank and file candidates (and between rank and file candidates). Roger McKenzie’s campaign did not achieve the vote which either the campaign or the candidate might have been thought to deserve, while Paul Holmes achieved the best result of any rank and file candidate in any UNISON General Secretary election.

Table Two – votes for candidates who were officials and candidates who were rank and file members in UNISON General Secretary elections this century

Votes for officials (%)Votes for rank and file candidates (%)
20005644
20057624
20106733
20157624
20205842

The share of the vote gained by the two rank and file candidates in 2020 was the highest in twenty years, thanks to the votes cast for Paul Holmes. The allocation of those votes between those two candidates also demonstrated a further aspect of change.

In all previous UNISON General Secretary elections, Socialist Party member Roger Bannister had stood as a candidate, always facing at least one other rank and file candidate – and always outpolling them. Some thought that this was because of Roger’s personal reputation and his name recognition with the membership, from having stood in previous elections, going back to the National and Local Government Officers’ Association. Others – in the Socialist Party in particular – thought it must be because of the superior politics of that organisation – usually its visceral hostility to the Labour Party.

Table Three – votes cast for candidates who were members of the Socialist Party and for other rank and file candidates in UNISON General Secretary elections this century

Socialist Party candidate vote (%)Other rank and file candidate vote(%)
20003212
2005178
20102013
20151312
2020834

The 2020 result, in which Paul Holmes achieved a share of the vote higher than Roger Bannister had ever achieved, with four times the votes cast for Socialist Party contender Hugo Pierre, settles that debate once and for all – although whether this will persuade the Socialist Party to support a single united left candidate in a future election remains to be seen.

For all the changes reflected in the 2020 results, there was – for socialists – a rather obvious further continuity in that, with three candidates for change, the continuity candidate was the eventual victor.

The lessons for the left, aside from the obvious one about trying to have only one candidate in future are that, for a rank and file candidate to stand a chance of victory, they must have a very high profile in the trade union. On the assumption that Christina McAnea seeks a further term of office in 2025 – fighting as an incumbent candidate with a better chance of winning than a newcomer – UNISON activists need to find a female candidate willing to stand in 2025 in the hope of winning in 2030.

One final point about this UNISON General Secretary election – which has yet to be covered elsewhere – is that there have been far more complaints upheld by the Returning Officer than in any previous election. In 2015, the Returning Officer found that thirty complaints were valid. In the latest election, more than 100 complaints have been upheld. UNISON members who made these complaints will need to consider what further steps may be appropriate.

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.

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