Britain: Unison – Right-wing aggression and the lessons of Corbynism

At last month’s Unison conference, the right wing went on the offensive, attempting to regain control of the union. Instead of resisting this onslaught, however, the left went into retreat. We must learn the lessons of these important events.

“Ours is not to laugh or to cry, but to learn” (Spinoza)

We have received quite a few responses to our recent articles on the Unison conference – many of them supporting our analysis, and a few which are critical.

For example, one positive reply was from a Unison member in Edinburgh, who fears that the mistakes from the Corbyn years are being repeated.

Others raised various criticisms, which we welcome, as these will allow us to further clarify our views.

Breaking the stranglehold

To begin with, we believe wholeheartedly in strengthening the left in Unison. This means building Time For Real Change (TFRC) in all areas of the country, and involving the rank and file.

Holmes real change Image Socialist AppealWe believe wholeheartedly in strengthening the left in Unison. This means building Time For Real Change (TFRC) in all areas of the country / Image: Socialist Appeal

For the past year, the union’s right wing has attempted to tie up the left in procedural wrangles. We are glad the left is now seeking to break out of this, and is looking to build up its strength locally.

We understand that some on the union’s right wing were understandably upset by our recent articles; so much so that Socialist Appeal was raised on Unison’s national executive committee (NEC), with the threat of legal action levelled against us. 

On the other hand, we also received some criticism from those on the left. One critic was Karen Reissmann, an NEC member and member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who argued that our articles didn’t help “anyone but the right”.

Some even suggested our articles could demoralise union activists, having revealed what had been going on behind the scenes. One thought it was “disingenuous”, but failed to elaborate.

Telling the truth

Leon Trotsky once said that the motive force of history was truth, not lies. Our starting point always has to be to tell the truth, offering comradely criticism, however unpalatable, so as to learn from mistakes and move forward. The worst crime would be to bury our heads in the sand. 

From the beginning, Socialist Appeal has been proud to comment positively on the left’s advance in Unison, and to defend it against unjust attacks from whatever quarter.

Holmes Again Conf Image Socialist AppealWe supported Paul Holmes, the Time for Real Change candidate for general secretary, who would have won if not for the splitting tactics of the so-called Socialist Party / Image: Socialist Appeal

We supported Paul Holmes, the Time for Real Change candidate for general secretary, who would have won if not for the splitting tactics of the so-called Socialist Party, or the ‘left’ campaign of Roger McKenzie.

We also supported the TFRC campaign in the NEC elections, which resulted in a great victory.

We had no illusions about this victory, however. It was only ever a first step – one that could only be consolidated if the campaign against the right wing and the bureaucracy was taken into the broad membership.

Given what was at stake, it was always going to be a stand-up, knock-'em-down fight to the finish.

We were prepared to support the left in Unison, but not blindly, of course. We weren’t going to give anyone a blank cheque. Where there are differences, it is our duty to say so.

We had already gone through the bitter experience of the Corbyn years, where the attempts by the ‘left’ to appease the Labour right wing ended in complete disaster. We didn’t want such a defeat to be replicated in Unison, whose right wing are the same animal as Labour’s traitors.

Identity politics

It is clear that this year’s Unison annual conference would be a battleground. The plans of the right wing and the bureaucracy were well prepared.

They were, after all, under orders from the ruling class to do everything in their power to destroy the left, and to restore the union to right-wing control. It was a well-orchestrated plot, backed by the establishment.

If we are to be honest, the left was taken off-guard. They did not expect such a furious reaction from the right. Many, especially those new to the struggle, were shocked and clearly disorientated by what was happening.

Unfortunately, this resulted in wavering and divisions in the left. This surfaced at the pre-conference TFRC meeting on the night before conference, where there was a concerted attempt to overturn the decision to oppose motion 9, submitted by the black members’ committee.

This was a scandalous motion that attempted to slander the left-led NEC, accusing it of “white privilege”, and of holding back black representation. This was completely false, as the records show.

It was a case of the right wing using the poisonous weapon of identity politics – through the black members’ committee – as a stick with which to beat the left, nothing more. 

But rather than call this out and defend the record of the NEC, the SWP members in the meeting played a pernicious role, leading the charge to support the motion “with qualifications” (which was meaningless). It was Karen Reissmann who said that not to support this motion would mean “offending black people”.

This is not surprising, as the SWP have completely succumbed to identity politics, where class questions are overridden by so-called ‘diversity’ issues.

Their concern was not so much about offending black people, as offending their careerist chums on the black members’ committee.

As we have explained before, under the right-wing union leadership, the interests of ordinary low-paid black workers have been completely ignored, while the black members’ committee has been promoted.

Such ‘committees’ become an end in themselves; a camouflage to cover up the failure to deal with the real issues affecting ordinary members.

What was being proposed in accepting motion 9, especially by the SWP, was that the NEC shamefully condemn itself, so as to appease these committee-careerists, as well as the union’s right wing. This was a massive blunder.

The SWP would take this capitulation further throughout the week of Unison conference, with disastrous consequences.

Smears and slanders

We have already mentioned the actions of the so-called Socialist Party (SP), who also climbed into bed with the right wing, this time in the ‘Kirklees 15’ campaign.

Corbyn SA Image Socialist AppealThe comparisons with the Corbyn years are clear. While Jeremy Corbyn was branded as an ‘antisemite’, Paul Holmes has been accused of being a ‘bully of women’ / Image: Socialist Appeal

The SP scandalously lined up with the employers and the union bureaucrats to victimise Paul Holmes, a long-standing trade union militant. They willingly promoted and participated in a 300-strong meeting of the ‘Kirklees 15’, composed mainly of rabid right-wingers and union officials.

The comparisons with the Corbyn years are clear. While Jeremy Corbyn was branded as an ‘antisemite’, Paul Holmes has been accused of being a ‘bully of women’. Both slanders were invented to attack the left.

This unholy alliance succeeded in sacking Paul from his job at the council, after a two-year suspension. He was also suspended from the union by the right wing for a similar period, but they were forced to eventually lift the suspension as there was no case to answer.

The right wing, supported by the SP, used this crap to smear and attack Paul at the Unison conference.

Coup and capitulation

The right-wing onslaught certainly shook the left. In a fit of hysteria, the conference passed a vote of no confidence in the NEC.

Under this pressure, behind the scenes, moves were afoot to ditch Paul Holmes from the presidential team. The main conspirators involved in this plot were the SWP and the Socialist Alternative group, who were keen to placate the right wing and pander to identity politics – a consistent hallmark of these groups. 

These ‘lefts’ had the barefaced cheek to organise a meeting to discuss this change – a clear manoeuvre – without informing Paul.

Resting on the disorientation from the right wing’s assault, and from Paul’s absence, they sought to stampede the other lefts into supporting this ‘coup’.

The left were also under pressure from the right wing, who were now howling for a statement from the NEC in response to the earlier vote of no confidence.

When a further left meeting was called for the Thursday evening of conference, Steve North, from Socialist Alternative, stuck the knife in and moved a motion to formally remove Paul Holmes from the presidential team.

North’s argument was that Paul was now “damaged goods”, and that there was a need to placate the right by promoting women and black members.

This essentially meant throwing Paul under a bus, and giving in to the unfounded slanders and lies of the right wing, who were baying for blood. The left were clearly buckling under the pressure. 

Furthermore, behind Paul’s back, other nominations had been submitted for the presidential team, so as to replace him when the time came.

Under these circumstances, after enduring days of constant attacks from the right wing, Paul, who felt personally betrayed, withdrew his nomination in the light of someone else being nominated without Paul’s knowledge.

Shamefully, the man who had helped deliver the left’s victory had been sacrificed to appease the right wing.

Retreats and resignations

Of course, until the old regime is firmly back in the saddle, the right wing will never be satisfied, whatever compromises the left make.

The parallels with the experiences of the Corbyn movement could not be clearer. At that time, Labour’s right wing invented accusations of antisemitism in order to beat the left. But the left consistently failed to answer these allegations politically. Each retreat by the left, meanwhile, only emboldened the right, leading to a full-scale retreat.

Voting Unison conf Image Socialist AppealThe vote of no confidence from such a rigged conference should not have been a signal to throw in the towel, but to declare war and go to the rank and file of the union / Image: Socialist Appeal

As the union right wing pressed home their advantage, the SWP completely lost their heads.

At the Thursday morning NEC meeting, after the result of the no confidence motion had been announced, Unison general secretary Christina McAnea stated that if she were the one facing such a vote she would resign.

This prompted right-winger Gordon McKay to propose that the whole NEC resign. Incredibly, this proposal was supported by the SWP’s leading member Karen Reissman. Fortunately, the rest of the left voted this proposal down.

After pressure from the right wing, a special lunchtime NEC meeting took place on the Friday. At this, McKay once again raised his motion that the NEC should resign. Instead, the SWP representatives argued that the elections for a new NEC should be brought forward. But they were told by the general secretary that this was not possible under the rules.

Under these circumstances, the SWP representatives didn’t oppose the right-wing motion, but sheepishly abstained. A Socialist Worker article quoted Karen Reissman:

“We think we have to take the vote of confidence seriously, but if the whole executive resigned, you will have no national executive for four or five months. We wouldn’t be able to support demonstrations or organise protests.

“We should be able to bring forward NEC elections, which are due to start in January. We wanted to bring them forward but the union rules don’t allow this.” (Socialist Worker, 19/6/22)

Why give into pressure and propose holding early elections, when the left should be standing their ground and taking their fight to the broad membership? It was rank-and-file members, after all, who had elected the left NEC in the first place.

While the rigged conference voted ‘no confidence’ in the NEC, there is plenty of confidence amongst the membership for left-wing policies and a break with the past.

Such a retreat, as proposed by the SWP, without any clear strategy, would turn things into a rout. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

The vote of no confidence from such a rigged conference should not have been a signal to throw in the towel, but to declare war and go to the rank and file of the union.

Class fighters vs careerists

To add insult to injury, the left planned to issue a ‘statement of apology’ to the conference. As expected, the original statement drawn up by the full-time staff was for the left NEC to sign its own death warrant. The revised statement, however, although not as brutal as the staff’s, was still a capitulation.

Through this grovelling apology, the left were in effect prostrating itself before the right wing and the bureaucracy. It was like lambs to the slaughter.

Unison balloon Image RwendlandThese workers have been left behind under years of right-wing leadership / Image: Rwendland

Foolishly, the NEC’s statement said that the outright lies raised by the right wing “represent serious issues which must be addressed”! It goes on:

“We have listened. We have listened to deep concerns about fair representation and have already begun to take action in response to concerns about equalities and proportionality on the NEC. The NEC accepts serious mistakes have been made. We apologise to conference.”

This is downright pandering to the right wing and identity politics. Fighting on this boggy terrain, you can never win. It is the reason why Paul Holmes was removed from the presidential team. 

The only way you can involve more women and black workers in the union is to become a fighting union on behalf of the working class, with policies that improve lives; not with tokenism. 

Most of these ‘self-organised group’ (SOG) committees are completely unknown to the mass of ordinary members of the union. Many activists are deeply sceptical of the way that the bureaucracy promotes the gravy train for careerists, often on full-time release from work, while at the same time seeking to undermine and marginalise genuine class fighters in the union

What have these committees done for ordinary low-paid women or black workers? The record speaks for itself.

These workers have been left behind under years of right-wing leadership, who have merely paid lip-service to the struggle against low pay and discrimination, while using the self-organised group structures to bolster their position. It is about time people told the truth about this scandal.

We should elect class fighters, in every branch, region, service group, and SOG. Only by creating a fighting, militant union can you offer a way forward.

The dead hand of the right wing and the bureaucracy is only interested in class collaboration and cosy deals with the employers. This whole rotten regime should be thrown into the dustbin of history. The NEC should ‘open the books’ and seriously review how the union’s money is being spent.

The admission of “serious mistakes” is an outrage in the face of this right-wing onslaught. The only serious mistake made by the left is not to confront these slanders head on. 

Instead, the left-led NEC says it will work “in partnership” with McAnea, the right-wing general secretary, “to assess the whole of this conference week and all of its Motions and Rule Amendments passed”.

Rigged conference

It is not us, Socialist Appeal, that plays into the hands of the right wing, but the retreat and weakness of the so-called left. As we know full well: weakness invites aggression.

As left Unison activist Jon Rogers recently wrote in his blog:

“In preparation for the first in-person conference in three years, the machine was able to mobilise delegates who would be supportive of their position, by way of their control of 1000 paid staff; and found that the tools of the Standing Orders Committee, including the prioritisation process, which had been developed to sanitise conference and remove controversy under the previous leadership, could now be turned to good use in ensuring that conference would provide repeated opportunities for attacks upon the left-wing NEC.

“In this way, the stage was set for a series of debates, which were intended not only to ensure that the NEC could make no positive progress, but also to break the will and spirit of relatively inexperienced new NEC members, not least by way of an unremitting tide of hostility directed at Unison President Paul Holmes.” (our emphasis)

The only way this could have been prevented was to have a firm leadership that would not buckle. This was a time to remain firm and hold the line. 

Unfortunately, this did not happen. So disoriented were the left that they allowed a scandalous rule change (targeted at Paul Holmes and the left) to pass concerning the status of sacked members. As this needed a two-thirds majority, this could have easily been defeated on a card vote – but a card vote was not called!

This rule change specifically specified that members who were sacked by their employer on the grounds of discrimination or harassment would be ineligible to hold office in the union, or remain as a member for a maximum of two years if unemployed.

This was clearly aimed at Paul Holmes, who was victimised by his employer on trumped up charges of bullying. Scandalously, this could now be used to try and remove him from the NEC.

This rule amounts to nothing more than a bosses’ charter. Any employer who wants to get rid of a trade union representative will now simply invent a case of discrimination or harassment to sack them, and – under the new union rules – prevent them from holding any position in the union. 

Many Unison members must be wondering what kind of trade union conference – the ‘sovereign body’ of the union – could vote for such an abomination. We would maintain that only a rigged conference, dominated by a lay right-wing bureaucracy, could do this.

Right-wing revenge

The left-led NEC went on to elect a new presidential team – one without Paul, the most experienced left leader in the union. Instead, they bent over backwards and accepted the SWP’s demand for a more ‘balanced’ team, which they hoped might placate the right wing. But the right wing will never be satisfied.

Arguments have been raised by some ‘lefts’ that Paul could not remain as president due to a one-year rule. Firstly, Paul never served his full year, due to his unjust suspension. Secondly, there is no such rule in the union rulebook. All it says is that the Presidential team must be elected every year, with no bar on people being reelected if the NEC wishes.

Clearly, the ‘left’ panicked, pushed along by the SWP and Socialist Alternative, and decided to throw Paul under the bus, all of which was done behind his back. 

Obviously, this failed to satisfy the right wing, who anyways went on to walk out of the conference in protest against the NEC’s refusal to resign on the spot.

The right wing were having none of it. At the very end of conference, the traditional vote of thanks to the President was given by Jon Rogers, who has terminal cancer. As soon as he got up to speak, 90% of the right wing on the NEC, together with all the full-time officers, including the general secretary, walked off the platform in a show of brazen contempt. This was the real face of the right wing, baying for revenge.

Where next?

In face of this ‘counterrevolution’, rather than an inglorious retreat, the left should have stood its ground. It should have gone on the offensive and told some home truths about the behaviour of the right wing and this bureaucratic stitch-up. In such a situation, the best form of defence is attack.

unison shout Image Socialist AppealUnless the left calls a halt to its retreat and defiantly stands up to the right at the upcoming July NEC, the left’s victory will be placed in jeopardy / Image: Socialist Appeal

We raise these points, not out of any feeling of satisfaction, far from it, but simply to tell the truth in the hope that lessons will be learned.

Unless the left calls a halt to its retreat and defiantly stands up to the right at the upcoming July NEC, the left’s victory will be placed in jeopardy.

We sincerely hope they will heed this comradely warning. The future of over one million Unison members depends on it.

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