UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Will conference words of unity translate to reality?

Calls for unity from both platform and floor were welcome after a sometimes bitter special local government conference in London on Tuesday - and unity is essential if anything positive is to come out of this costly exercise.

Really important stuff about how we organise, how we consult clearly and transparently and how we engage members, was battered through with little debate as the conference voted time after time to move the business on.

But it did back the motions. Sound and considered templates from Scotland, Northern Ireland, The Service Group and others on strategies for consultation, including using electronic communication, more political lobbying and developing union wide strategies on pay. All very positive, although tying negotiators’ hands when it comes to consulting on last minute offers may yet come back to bite us.

The real challenge for the lay and full time leadership is how they implement the mandate to re-open the pay claim in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – which was clearly what it was all really about for most delegates. The technicalities of that are not simple; members will no doubt be a bit confused as will the whole bargaining structure, so it will test the pronouncements on unity to the full.

Mind you, it will all be academic unless we can grasp the nettle of where our power lies, where we are weak and how we address those weaknesses. Traditional industrial action in branches with 20% density kids nobody but ourselves.

Amidst the anger, the debate seemed to miss those very basics of how we organise, how we recruit to get the member density we need to make any action actually work, and how we grasp and deal with the difficult analysis of strong and weak points across the country. An assumption that campaigning automatically translates into action is na├»ve. There is much to be learned from the RMT’s reputed approach of choosing fights carefully, playing to your strengths and boxing clever.

Many figures were quoted in the debate, but one set stood out starkly. Members voted by 64% in a ballot to accept the two year deal with all its faults. Activists voted by just over 60% in a card vote to overrule them and lodge another claim.

The argument was that the ballot question was unfair. Members were scared off by a ballot that said the offer (or proposals) was the best that could be achieved by negotiation and any improvement would only be won by ‘significant’ all-out action.

This was a bit odd coming from some delegates who year after year tell us that all-out action and a general strike are the only way to win anything. When they call for it, it is showing leadership, when the leadership mention it, it is to put people off, seemed to be the logic.

Much was made of our member-led union. But there was less clarity as to what was meant by ‘lay control’. Lay control is when lay leaders seize the responsibility and hold the full time structure to account. It is also where they take their mandates seriously and stand up and take responsibility for the hard decisions we elect them to make. A Scotland delegate tried to explain this only to be accused on twitter of being against being ‘member-led’.

If we disagree with them, we need to let them know that. But that needs to be constructive and respectful otherwise you just have permanent electioneering among the activist classes and no matter how that is dressed up it is completely divorced from members’ day to day experiences.

Unfortunately, few of the decision-makers, with honourable exceptions, seemed willing to step forward and explain what the rationale for decisions had been. We could have done without the one that abused the chance to speak for his colleagues just to criticise them. He was described as a ‘rebel’ on twitter. If rebel means populist chancer that might be right. It was not greatly enlightening and perhaps underpinned by the permanent electioneering syndrome.

So what do we mean by member-led? Northern Region outlined their highly organised member-led system for campaigning and consulting members on the ground, hearing what stewards and members were saying and making sure their elected NJC rep understood and represented the views they were getting on the ground – with disappointment - that there was little appetite for more action.

North West (Manchester branch initiated the conference), usually just as organised on the ground, took a different view and felt their members were ready for more action. Many at the conference were clear which one they wanted to hear. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes that listening to the members only counts if the members tell you what you want to hear.

Northern and North West are among the most organised and active regions in the union. How could they come to such different conclusions?

Well maybe because the membership have genuinely different experiences and have come to genuinely different conclusions. There is nothing the matter with that. After all the whole argument was about having the finger on the membership pulse. To do that you don’t assume, you agitate and listen and you hear different things back. You respect the reality. That’s what you need to take into account when setting your strategies.

The conference was ostensibly called with a constructive aim. Manchester and the normally impressively organised and tactically aware North West voiced betrayal at the fait accompli of suspending the action in favour of a deal that even those most loyal to the leadership (and indeed among the leadership) must have thought was a bit dubious. The anger at how things came about was genuine among many who do not make a career of being angry at the leadership.

However, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that for many other branches and regions it was a ‘get out of jail free card’ because they knew that despite sound campaigning and engagement they couldn’t take the members any further. We can’t afford to ignore the problems of making action effective if you don’t have the membership density. These are all things that leaders need to take into account when assessing action.

In any case, the constructive aim proved to be skin deep, as Manchester – instead of the reasoned arguments we have come to expect - chose to launch into some old fashioned platform bashing and fifth-columnist innuendo ably supported by the career platform bashers who couldn’t believe their luck. Unity is not something that is usually top of the platform bashers’ agenda. In fact it’s not something they even manage to achieve amongst themselves in the host of incarnations and reincarnations of the ‘united’ left.

Of course none of this would matter much if it hadn’t touched on the nerve of frustrated and at times alienated activists. More than once the increasing workloads and pressures on branch activists were mentioned.

We know there are branches that complain but in reality do very little campaigning on the ground - and conferences like these help them to put the blame elsewhere. But there are many more where activists are run off their feet with the daily nuts and bolts and barely any time to think of the bigger picture. The union centre seems slow to grasp that nettle.

The conference, amongst many other agendas, highlighted a trust gap between and within levels of the union and to ignore that whatever the reasons would be foolish. We need to hold our leadership to account but as a collective (and if we are not that, we are nothing) we need to avoid a ‘them and us’ agenda at all costs.

Progressive forces can address that constructively and genuinely try to build unity of purpose. The danger is if we don’t – either through frustration or naivety - there will be many waiting to exploit it and widen it for their own purposes and that will take us nowhere.