This year’s conference of Britain's biggest trade union, Unison, has ended with the right wing emboldened, and the left in retreat. Attempts to appease the right will only encourage them to intensify their attacks. To regroup and fight back, we need bold, unwavering leadership.
As reported previously, the right wing and the bureaucracy have gone on the offensive against the left-led NEC at this year’s Unison national delegate conference – using every opportunity and deploying every dirty trick in the book to attack the left, in an effort to restore their control over the union.
On Tuesday, the first day of conference, the right wing proposed and voted through a motion of no confidence in the NEC, alongside two other factional motions, containing all manner of lies and smears.
Subsequently, scenting blood, the right wing have pressed home their advantage, pushing through further punitive motions and rule changes.
This morning, an emergency motion was tabled, demanding a statement from the NEC in relation to the previously-passed no confidence vote – a calculated attempt to further humiliate and demoralise left-wing activists, in the hope of breaking their resistance.
Behind these orchestrated attacks lies a bureaucratic caste within the union. They are aware of the threat that a genuinely left-led fighting Unison poses to them; to the perks, privileges, and power that these unaccountable officials have traditionally enjoyed.
And behind them stands the weight of the establishment and the ruling class, who are determined to keep Britain’s largest union – representing 1.3 million public sector workers – under their control.
As such, these unscrupulous ladies and gentlemen are prepared to do whatever it takes to remove the left from their democratically-elected positions. Bullying behaviour; campaigns of harassment; outright slander: nothing is off the table. They are ruthless – willing to win by any means necessary.
To fend off such a vicious assault requires an iron determination and resolve; a bold leadership that is able to stand firm in the face of intimidation, and prepare the ground for a counter-offensive. Unfortunately, and disastrously, the left have taken precisely the opposite approach.
In response to the strident demands of this morning’s motion, the so-called left-led NEC have thrown in the towel and presented a grovelling statement of apology: wringing their hands for all the ‘mistakes’ they have been falsely accused of; and promising to mend their ways, if only their shrill critics will allow them to continue in office.
But the experiences of the Corbyn movement have demonstrated a thousand times over that the right wing of the labour movement will stop at nothing. No amount of concessions or apologies will appease them.
Rather, such timidity will do nothing but embolden the right wing. Given an inch, they will go on to demand a mile.
All the while, this capitulation will only serve to confuse and demobilise rank-and-file activists in Unison, who have worked tirelessly to see a left majority elected onto the NEC, under the Time for Real Change (TFRC) banner.
Similarly, every compromise that the Corbyn leadership made only added to the demoralisation and disorientation of left-wing Labour members, turning a retreat into a rout.
As we have explained from the start, the only way to win this fight against the right is to organise amongst the grassroots; to actively involve existing members and new layers in this struggle; and to enthuse them with clear socialist policies.
Instead, TFRC has allowed battles to be confined to the top table and the union’s sub-committees, well away from the eyes of rank-and-file members.
Whenever Corbyn came under attack, it was grassroots activists on the ground who mobilised to save him, through local networks built up in-and-around the CLPs. Time for Real Change, by contrast, has failed to build such a base.
Instead, the group simply hoped that last year’s NEC election results would automatically be translated into a majority amongst the delegates at this week’s national conference. Now we see the price the movement will have to pay for this complacency.
Unfortunately, however, the backtracking of this ‘left’ went even further.
Panicked by the attacks they faced on Tuesday, and by the vitriol aimed at then-Unison President Paul Holmes in particular, the left NEC grouping later met to propose a new presidential team – one that excluded Paul.
At this meeting, to which Paul had not been invited, sectarian activists from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Alternative demanded that Paul be thrown under the bus.
Arguing that Paul was ‘damaged goods’, they naively claimed that a change at the top was needed to placate the right wing. Better yet, they argued, replacing him with a woman or a black member would defang the right in terms of their spurious accusations of misogyny and racism against the left.
Clutching at straws, the rest of the so-called left began to line up behind this plan. And in the end, this cowardly, treacherous effort succeeded, forcing Paul to resign from his position as president – and from Time for Real Change itself – in response. These ‘lefts’ should hang their heads in shame.
We must be clear about what has happened. The aim of this despicable ‘palace coup’ is to offer the right wing a sacrificial lamb. By handing the enemy Paul’s scalp, these backstabbers, parading as ‘lefts’, hope to save their own political skins, and desperately cling onto their elected positions.
In effect, they have joined the witch-hunting campaign being waged against Paul by the employers and the right wing, with the help of the sectarian Socialist Party. And as already stated, this will also do nothing at all to appease the left’s opponents, but will only embolden them.
The new presidential team – along with the rest of the ‘left’ on the Unison NEC, and at other levels within the union – will face the same merciless attacks, with any smear or slander that the right wing cares to dig up, or simply invent.
Similarly, repeated admissions of guilt regarding supposed ‘antisemitism’ were never enough to satisfy Corbyn’s objectors. And the same will be true when it comes to charges of sexism, racism, etc. against these ‘lefts’.
This shows the poisonous role of identity politics within the labour movement: a weapon that the right wing will happily – and cynically – turn against the left. And sectarian groups such as the SWP play an equally pernicious part in pandering to such ideas, in effect acting as the handmaidens of the right wing.
Having seen these ‘lefts’ panic and crumble under pressure, the right wing’s belligerence will only intensify. Indeed, at the time of writing, reports are emerging from conference of a large-scale walkout of right-wing delegates, in response to the NEC’s refusal to immediately resign.
Given all this, the situation looks grim indeed. This is entirely thanks to the spinelessness of the so-called left. While the ‘left’ still hold a majority on the NEC for now, things do not augur well for them.
They have been dealt a series of serious blows by the right. And their response to these attacks has exposed the tremendous weakness at the heart of the grouping.
If they continue down this road, allowing themselves to be pushed around by the right wing, and only struggling for positions rather than power, then the end result will be disaster and defeat for the mass of low-paid workers who are yearning for a fighting union.
The Unison bureaucracy will go to every length in order to take full control of the union. And once this is achieved, the right wing will show the kind of tender mercy that its counterpart in the Labour Party showed to the ‘left’ there.
Activists identified as TFRC supporters will be targeted en masse. And the bureaucracy will attempt to completely rewrite the rules, so as to prevent a left insurgency from winning a majority on the NEC again.
The genuine left must fully digest the lessons of the Corbyn movement, and from this week’s events. Weakness only invites aggression. We cannot afford to naively expect otherwise.
The current ‘left’ leadership in Unison has fallen at the first real test. What is needed is a hardened, militant left leadership – one that will not bend, compromise or buckle in the face of the right wing’s attacks.
This is what Socialist Appeal – the Marxist tendency in the British labour movement – is attempting to build. We urge you to join us in this task.