Uniting for change in UNISON?

Stephen Smellie gives personal reflections on UNISON’s newly elected national leadership.

Glaswegian Christina McAnea was elected as general secretary of UNISON, the first woman to lead one of the big unions. Leither Gary Smith was elected as GMB general secretary. In UNITE, Sharon Graham was elected as the ‘left’ change candidate. The election of a general secretary does not in itself change anything, although electing a woman in such a senior position does make a significant change to how a union looks and how it reflects its membership. Time will tell if any of the victors implement significant change.

However, leadership of our unions does not rest exclusively with general secretaries. The national executive bodies of lay representatives share that leadership. Therefore, the outcome of the recent election of UNISON’s national executive, where the majority elected had aligned themselves to a grouping who had supported Paul Holmes, runner-up to McAnea, has prompted much discussion and, in some quarters, expectations. To her credit, McAnea made it clear that she would work with the new NEC, respecting the lay democracy of the union.

This grouping stood under the slogan of ‘Time for Real Change’ (TfRC) and are clearly of the ‘left.’ However, claims that this was a victory for ‘the Left,’ made by several ‘Left’ commentators, as if the election was a competition between ‘left’ and ‘right’ groups, is simplistic and the truth more complicated. The TfRC group consists of activists from the left of Labour allied with SWP supporters. Socialist Party supporters were not included, having disagreed over the choice of the ‘left’ general secretary candidate. Nor were supporters of the other candidate, Roger McKenzie, the now departed Assistant General Secretary, who had Corbyn’s support. Nor were several ‘left’ NEC members who supported McAnea.

The TfRC group won most NEC seats and had put itself forward as championing genuine change. With others, there is now a significant majority on the NEC who would represent ‘left’ views. Previously, the NEC was dominated by another, slightly looser, grouping who were supportive of previous general secretary, Dave Prentis. They were steadfast in ensuring that only those loyal to ‘Team Dave’ were allowed access to positions of power and influence within the union. Those outside the TfRC group, who shared some of its aspirations for change, both with some of the internal workings of the union and in the style and vigour of the union’s campaigning, were hopeful that a more open leadership would emerge that would refresh the organising challenges UNISON faces.

Genuine change can take time and anyone claiming to implement it can only be judged by their actions. Whether changes are contributing to the strengthening of a ‘left’ agenda will be judged by the details, the values they represent and whether they empower members in workplaces, address inequalities and create a stronger union. Progressive changes have already taken place, before the new NEC was elected, with the recent annual conference voting for changes to increase the funding of branches and regions.

A challenge for any grouping winning a union election is whether they can broaden their support, bring people on board with their aims and provide leadership rather than fighting off opposing factions to protect their own newly won positions. This is particularly a challenge for those who seek to implement change and face resistance to changing how things are done.

The definition of who is ‘left’ is open to debate and is often, unfortunately, narrowly construed to mean not those who uphold clear socialist values and principles but, those who support one faction or candidate. This factional approach relegates values and principles as less important. It also narrows the base of support to carry through changes based on clear values and principles.

In UNISON, there is recognition of the long struggles to recognise and challenge racism, to challenge the male domination within unions, to create political and bargaining devolution and to promote diversity. A genuine ‘Left’ agenda would always reflect these issues.

Therefore, concerns have been raised at the first actions of the new NEC was to appoint male NEC members as President, and then as Chairs of 5 out of 7 of the main committees. That is quite an achievement considering UNISON’s rules not only ensure a 2/3 female NEC but that the team of a President and two Vice-Presidents must include 2 women and that the chairs and vice-chairs must include a woman. None of these key positions are filled by black members and none of them are from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. UNISON’s lay representatives on the TUC General Council are now all white. So, UNISON’s new lay leadership, drawn from the TfRC group, is white, male dominated and English and to be fair, that is genuine change but hardly the kind of progressive change expected of a ‘left’ leadership.

This gives the impression that diversity and issues of gender, race and devolution are not important. This has created divisions within the union over these issues. From a Scottish perspective, it raises questions as to the relevance of the NEC to Scottish members when there is no representation in senior positions, including no Scottish members on the crucial Finance Committee, when most of the bargaining agenda is within wholly devolved Scottish structures.

Though it is not likely that this was the impression the TfRC intended and it does not reflect the politics it has espoused. The challenge for the TfRC is to move on with building a broader base around a ‘left’ agenda, embracing other views and perspectives, enshrining core values and avoiding becoming another faction seeking to control and exclude others.

Stephen Smellie is a member of UNISON’s NEC, depute convenor of UNISON Scotland and a member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee.