Britain: Unison national conference – A wake-up call for the left

The left activists suffered a blow at the conference of Britain's largest union, Unison, this week, as the right wing launched a vicious offensive against the NEC. This highlights important lessons in the struggle to transform the union into a fighting weapon for workers.

Delegates assembled in Brighton this week for Unison’s national conference. With the cost-of-living crisis bearing down on workers, and the government threatening to legalise agency labour to break strikes, there was clearly a lot to talk about.

The first day of conference, however, was instead dominated by a series of vicious attacks on the left leadership, orchestrated by the right wing of the union.

Ever since the election of a left-wing majority on the union’s national executive committee (NEC), under the Time for Real Change (TFRC) banner, the union’s bureaucracy and right-wing agents have been pulling out all the stops to seize back control.

Behind the right stands the forces of the establishment and the ruling class, who cannot tolerate the union being under the control of the left.

Lies and smears

Yesterday at conference, the right wing launched a major offensive, centred around three hostile motions attacking the NEC: motions 9, 10, and 11.

Lying through their teeth, the right wing cynically accused the left leadership of instituting a power-grab by changing the rules, and of being prejudiced against black and disabled members. Motion 11 specifically called for a vote of no confidence in the left-led NEC.

Holmes Again Conf Image Socialist AppealUnison president Paul Holmes was the target of vicious personal abuse, particularly from right-wing speakers at the podium / Image: Socialist Appeal

Motion 9, sent in by the black members’ committee, baselessly smeared the NEC as wanting to ‘uphold white privilege’. The motion also falsely claimed that representation for black members had gone backwards under the current leadership. 

This motion was passed. Unfortunately, this was aided by a change in the NEC’s recommendation, from opposition to ‘support with qualifications’.

This change in position was in part due to the arguments of TFRC activists from the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), who feared ‘alienating black workers’. Far from pacifying the situation, however, this concession only emboldened the right.

In effect, the NEC was proposing to censure itself, for no reason and no gain. The NEC should have argued against this motion – defending its record, and pointing out its falsehoods. Instead of buckling to the pressure, it should have outlined the real class policies it intends to pursue to make a real difference to black members, and to workers in general.

These motions, sponsored by the disabled and black members’ committees, show the pernicious role of identity politics, and how this can – and will – be used by the right wing as a stick with which to beat the left.

These committees, which kept their mouths shut when the union was dominated by the right wing, do not represent the interests of ordinary black and disabled workers. Such workers, mostly low-paid, have been ignored by the union for decades, despite the existence of these ‘committees’.

Political battle

From the very start, it was clear that the right’s tactic was to whip-up hysteria amongst delegates, in order to obscure the real political battle and interests at stake.

Speaker after speaker, coordinated by the right wing, deliberately repeated various lies and smears, raising hair-raising claims about ‘power grabs’, and heckling supporters of the NEC.

In particular, Unison president Paul Holmes was the target of vicious personal abuse, particularly from right-wing speakers at the podium.

Speakers from the left attempted to counter this tide of filth, including NEC member Lilly Boulby, who explained the political basis for these hostile motions.

Ultimately, however, this was not enough, with both motions 10 and 11 passing. 

Formally speaking, these motions do not change anything in terms of who controls what body. But it is clear that the right wing and the bureaucracy have landed significant blows against the left-led NEC.

Right-wing mobilisation

The passing of these motions was the result of the efforts of right-wing officials, leaning on an extensive lay bureaucracy within the union. It does not reflect the views of real rank-and-file members, who are largely excluded from decision making in this so-called member-led union.

In reality, many union branches, under the control of the right wing, only organise all-member meetings once a year – the AGMs. Such branches are often dominated by cliques within the branch executive. Consequently, the right wing were able to mobilise their supporters in the apparatus for conference.

Scandalously, the right wing were given support from the Socialist Party (SP) in their attacks on the left – especially Paul Holmes.

Along with the right wing, SP members were busy promoting the ‘Kirklees 15’: mostly former-members who have falsely claimed that they have been ‘bullied’ by Paul over a period of nearly 20 years.

In reality, the stories from the disgruntled 15 have been deliberately gathered by the employers, Kirklees council, and by the union bureaucracy, in order to witch-hunt and sack Paul Holmes: a clear case of victimisation of a trade union militant who has been a thorn in the side of the bureaucracy.

Lessons for the left

These events must act as a wake-up call for the left. This setback on the first day of the conference has important lessons, demonstrating the huge task ahead in the struggle to transform the union.

Firstly, we must understand that the right wing in our movement are utterly ruthless. They know that behind them stands the capitalist establishment and the state, who do not want to see the country’s largest union fall into the hands of people willing to organise workers to fight. The right wing are willing to go to the very end to achieve this aim.

Voting Unison conf Image Socialist AppealThe passing of these motions was the result of the efforts of right-wing officials, leaning on an extensive lay bureaucracy within the union / Image: Socialist Appeal

The left must have the same determination, and more. We must learn the lessons of the Corbyn movement: first and foremost, that it is not possible to appease the right.

The right wing has won a partial victory, but they have not won the war.

Mobilise the membership

To counteract this pernicious lay bureaucracy, a democratic and open broad left must be urgently established. And a concerted campaign must be launched to reach rank-and-file members in every branch in the country. 

When grassroots members were involved directly in the election of the NEC, the result was a stunning victory for the left. But it was clear that serious preparation for the conference by the left was lacking.

Much more work needs to be done to reach the ordinary members, therefore, and to steel up activists for the fights ahead.

Activists must be recruited in every region and branch, armed with the facts, and organised by elected groupings within the broad left to take the fight even deeper into the membership.

The Unison HQ on Euston Road is the bureaucracy’s territory; the cliques in the branch executives are their footsoldiers. Only by taking the fight to ordinary union members – as we have said before – can this fight be won.

Real change

Combined with a Charter for Real Change, a manifesto laying out the need to overhaul the union into a democratic fighting weapon for workers, ready to take on the Tories and their capitalist backers, organised left activists can break the hold of the bureaucracy; prevent any repetition of this year’s conference defeats; and transform the union for good.

A fighting Unison would be a huge gain in the struggle against the Tories. It would inspire enormous confidence among workers everywhere, as the crisis of capitalism continues to eat away at our lives and livelihoods.

The left can still win such a prize. But they must be prepared to do what is necessary to gain it.

Originally published on 15 June at |

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