The UNISON conference this year was always going to be a battleground. Since the left took control of the NEC in 2021, there has been a coordinated backlash from people in the union who wanted to maintain the legacy of Dave Prentis, a legacy of inaction and defeat. Time For Real Change, the left slate that won the elections in 2021 has been attempting to shift the union into a more healthy direction, making the leadership more transparent and ensuring that elected lay members of the union don’t get removed from their posts just because their bosses have victimised them.
However, with every attempt at a revolution there comes resistance from the old order. The left knew what the key fights would be on day one as the coordinated efforts of the right of the union had succeeded in setting the battleground to their advantage.
Rumours swirled before the conference that some delegates would organise a protest on conference floor against Paul Holmes the UNISON president. Holmes was sacked by his employer at Kirklees Council for alleged sexism against UNISON activists (which he is appealing). But a number of delegates were concerned about sexism in the union and how it is handled. The bad blood in Kirkless branch spilt over onto the conference floor as supporters of the women who accused Holmes of sexism and Holmes’s supporters dug metaphorical trenches. There was also a motion from the Black Members National Committee criticising the lack of diversity among chairs on the NEC’s committees. Sadly some are cynically using these concerns to push their agenda of discrediting the left to restore the old established order who think they have a god-given right to run the union.
When Holmes got up to speak only around 10 people walked out, a handful stood up and turned their backs during his speech for a few seconds then sat down. When the people that walked out started chanting outside the conference hall there was a large round of applause for Holmes with some standing as they clapped. Holmes gave a solid presidential speech – most notably arguing that the “dented shield didn’t work, we need to throw the dented shield away and get new armoury to fight the bosses”. Very true!
However, the agenda of conference was not in the favour of the left. The opposition to the new leadership succeeded in prioritising two motions criticising the new NEC for some motions that they had passed at a meeting in October 2021 – motions 10 and 11. The motions were vague, full of insinuation and implicit criticisms without even stating what the actual issues were. It accused the NEC of consolidating power in its own hands, but all the NEC did was clarify the powers of the presidential team which runs the NEC. They agreed that they can seek external legal advice over decisions that the union officers forcibly rejected, arguing that only full-time unelected officers can get legal advice on decisions, not elected officers.
Another motion stated that an elected official shouldn’t automatically be forced out of their UNISON position because they have been fired by their employer. Some people forcibly disagree with this but surely it makes sense? We cannot let the employers target and persecute our leading lay member activists in order to damage the national union. What kind of power would it give to the bosses if we immediately removed our senior officers due to a disciplinary?
Time for Real Change aimed to prioritise motions around the cost of living crisis to deal with worrying levels of inflation. They also wanted to discuss electing senior officers to democratise the unwieldily and powerful UNISON bureaucracy. However, the submitted rules change on electing senior offices was ruled out of order by Standing Orders Committee, a body that is notoriously conservative about what it allows onto conference floor. For instance, it won’t allow motions that mention strike action in case it puts the union in “legal jeopardy” of having its funds sequestered by the government (worth noting that Unite, PCS, UCU and RMT regularly pass motions at conferences about strike action and nothing has happened to them).
After lunch, the conference shifted decidedly right. The conference took three motions top of the ballot for preference, condemning the left-run NEC for being against disabled people, being undemocratic and failing on black representation.
The motions were motivated by the vilest demagogic speeches you can imagine. Delegates called the NEC a dictatorship, accused them of being out of control (“they might affiliate us to the Tories!”), compared the arguments in UNISON to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Notably, delegates kept on lambasting the NEC for breaking rules without even naming a rule – but the substance didn’t matter – all that mattered was creating the mood music that the NEC was acting undemocratically in order to undermine them. Of course, the NEC for years has behaved undemocratically, with decisions behind closed doors and bullying of left activists that was rarely talked about but all that was ignored.
The right of the union had successfully amalgamated complaints around racism, sexism and disability discrimination into a full-frontal attack on the left. As a result, a motion was passed with a vote of no confidence in the NEC. Whilst this has no practical implications, it clearly is a moral blow and will be used by the right to undermine the left at the next internal elections.
Motions 10 and 11 against the NEC were passed with around 2/3s of delegates voting for them – Motion 9 on Black representation was passed with a higher number but the NEC had agreed to support that motion with qualifications.
To a degree though the left has not helped itself. TFRC has totally failed to properly communicate their strategy to the wider union membership. Delegates accused them of ‘wasting a year’ with ‘rules changes that only serve their own interests’ and the left NEC delegates could not successfully articulate their plans for the union beyond making it ‘strike ready’ to take on the government. The main gain so far from the left was to increase strike pay for members and to have it kick in from day one – very good but we need to win a national ballot in health and/or local government on pay to convince members that the left run leadership can do better than the previous incumbents.
This shows the limitations of the Broad Left Strategy of ‘taking over the leadership’ of the unions. The left won the vote to take over the NEC but hasn’t consolidated that with a serious base across the union and a way to really articulate its strategic vision (does it have one?) This allowed the right to convince delegates that it was the left that was guilty of all the crimes of the old leadership, being divisive, being self-interested, and failing members. The danger of this was reported by UNISON activists back in October 2021.
TFRC is also not great at communicating what it is doing to its supporters. Most of us only found out about the motions at NEC (the “rule changes”) after a full-time staff member emailed every branch secretary in the country to tell us how the NEC had acted unlawfully and was bringing the union into disrepute. Then right-wingers from the union took to social media to whip up opposition. All this was going on for days before TFRC managed to produce its own account or address anything to its supporters.
The TFRC fringe meeting in the evening was well attended though with 15 speakers in a boiling hot room it certainly could have been organised slightly differently. John McDonnell and Nadia Whittome joined the UNISON delegates to talk about future plans though it was clear that the day’s events had proved a setback. There is so much more work to do to actually shift UNISON to the left beyond a win on the NEC.
UNISON is the largest union in the UK and what happens inside it matters for the public sector and the wider union in general. Time For Real Change needs to take stock of where it is at and host a national meeting of supporters to hammer out its strategy and key arguments otherwise the right will continue the counter-offensive to smash socialist politics in the union.
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