Unison left: a chance for unity?

Submitted by AWL on 26 January, 2021 - 4:55 Author: Ruth Cashman
Left Unison general secretary candidate Paul Holmes

The right-wing continuity candidate Christina McAnea won the General Secretary election for the public service workers’ union Unison (result announced 11 January). But there were reasons to be encouraged by the result. Rank-and-file left candidate Paul Holmes delivered a strong vote.

McAnea won the election with 63,900 votes, Paul Holmes came in second place with 45,220 votes. Candidates backed by different sections of the left won more than 50% of votes cast.

Assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, backed by Jeremy Corbyn and much of the “official” Labour left, got 14,450 votes, and the Socialist Party’s Hugo Pierre 10,382.

The total makes the best vote for the left in a Unison general secretary election for 20 years. Holmes’s campaign picked up significant support despite the difficulties of the pandemic.

He was nominated by the Local Government Service Group Executive, the first time a rank-and-file candidate had been nominated by that important committee. His campaign held virtual meetings based on Regions and Service Groups of the union, and provided the possibility for activists to link up and build a left organisation which goes beyond the narrow confines of the existing “Unison Action”, which has thus far been only a precarious electoral alliance.

We cannot simply say that a single left candidate would have won the election. We don’t know that all votes would transfer over to that single candidate from others who stood, especially from Roger Mackenzie, who received support from both the right and the left of the union.

But a left candidate would have had a better chance of defeating McAnea, and a left unity ticket on a joint program to transform the union could have built an even bigger and more energetic campaign.

Sadly, Unison’s disparate left now looks likely to stand three separate slates or partial slates in the upcoming elections for the union’s National Executive Council (nominations 1 February to 5 March, voting 4-27 May), based around the support bases for each of the General Secretary candidates.

This will split the left vote again and may lose seats to the right. It also threatens to squander our chance to build an organisation or network that replaces the electoral-obsession of Unison Action, and the factionalism displayed in the General Secretary election, with unity in action to transform the union and develop strategy for the challenges ahead of us, including pay freezes, Covid-19, and funding crises in care and education.

The success of the Holmes campaign makes it the obvious base for such an initiative, but it should be looking to bring in other activists across the union.

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