The election for the general secretary position in public sector union Unison begins on 10 August. Branch nominations run from then until 25 September, and the vote from 28 October to 27 November, with results announced on 11 January 2021.
Incumbent general secretary Dave Prentis, in office since 2001 and with a record of profound bureaucratic conservatism, will retire when his current term ends in December.
Candidates require 25 branch nominations to make the ballot paper. So far, five candidates have formally declared their intention to stand, three of whom are currently unelected officials of the union. These are Roger McKenzie, currently an assistant general secretary; Christina McAnea, also an assistant general secretary; and Margaret Greer, the union’s national race equality officer. Jon Rogers’ well-informed blog describes McAnea as the continuity candidate. McKenzie is positioned somewhat on the left of the union’s officialdom.
Greer has badged herself “the members’ champion”, but has no particular left-wing record either in her officer role, or as a Labour councillor in Enfield.
The two rank-and-file candidates declared so far are Hugo Pierre, a local government worker and member of the Socialist Party, who sits on the union’s National Executive Committee, and Paul Holmes, also a local government worker and left-wing Labour activist, who stood for the position previously. Holmes is backed by “Unison Action Broad Left”, a fairly loose and not especially active grouping of left-wingers within Unison.
Pierre’s programme, which includes calls for the election of all union officials and a commitment not to take the full £138,000 general secretary’s salary, has some merit. But his campaign will be conditioned by the broader politics and approach of his organisation, the Socialist Party. The SP’s commitment to basic rank-and-file demands such as the election of all officials and for officials to be paid a workers’ wage varies greatly depending on their own proximity to power in any given union.
The SP also opposes union affiliations to the Labour Party, demanding defunding and disaffiliation rather than the democratisation of the union’s link to Labour so it could be used as a channel for direct pressure and opposition. As their own electoral front, the “Trade Union and Socialist Coalition”, is hardly a viable alternative avenue for the political representation of Unison members, their argument serves to bolster anti-political arguments that oppose union involvement in electoral politics altogether.
On that question, Holmes’s campaign will have a better position than Pierre’s. Holmes is a long-standing Labour left activist and Unison rep, who has built up his local branch, Kirklees, into a relatively well organised and combative force. However, Holmes has been suspended, both by his employer and from the union itself, since December 2019, with little clarity as to the background to the suspension, nor any public campaign against it. Whether Holmes will even be able to enter the race, given his suspension, is not clear.
Workers’ Liberty supporters in Unison support nominating Hugo Pierre or Paul Holmes, to ensure an open contest and representation for rank-and-file voices arguing for greater democracy and a more militant industrial strategy. An election fought entirely between three unelected bureaucrats would be poor.
We understand why some left-wing activists are backing Roger McKenzie. The election is First-Past-The-Post, so voting for the candidate most likely to beat McAnea, as Prentis’s political successor, has some merit.
Our people in Unison will decide which candidate to vote for once the campaigns take shape, and more material is issued.
We will use the election to argue for a real rank-and-file network in the union. Not simply a collection of individuals that backs candidates in elections, but a body that develops a programme for the radical transformation of the union, based fundamentally on mobilising members in workplaces.