Yesterday evening a meeting of Unison United Left was held to decide which prospective candidate should stand if there is a General Secretary election. If an election actually does take place (there is some doubt about that right now), it is widely expected that there will be division amongst various contenders from the trade union leadership, and therefore a single left candidate (as opposed to on previous occasions) would be a great step forward. Unfortunately, after the meeting last night this does not look likely.
In January of this year a similar meeting was held in Manchester. It was a Reclaim the Union meeting called by the NEC left caucus, and was meant to be a discussion about forming a united slate for the NEC elections. However, at the beginning of the meeting Socialist Workers Party members argued that the decision as to who should be stood as a united left General Secretary candidate. It was quite clear that, having ensured they had a majority in the room, the SWP was hoping to push its own candidate, Karen Reissmann, forward, and confer on her the legitimacy of that meeting. I won’t go into the details of that meeting, although a good analysis of it can be found here, but suffice it to say that no joint candidate emerged from it. The Socialist Party, whose preferred candidate is Roger Bannister, abstained and refused to accept the legitimacy of the meeting. Similarly, Paul Holmes, a Labour Party member and the other prospective candidate, refused to accept the decision.
The United Left therefore held another meeting last night, in the hope of ensuring a joint candidate. Unfortunately the outcome was very similar. There were about 120 Unison members in attendance, of whom 50-60 were SWP members, 30 were Socialist Party, and another 30 were either members of the Labour Party, non-aligned, or part of other, smaller groups. The SWP’s behaviour in this meeting followed a depressingly familiar pattern. Having ensured they had the largest vote in the room, they proceeded to push for a vote on a joint candidate. The Socialist Party again abstained from the process, and had already announced their intention to stand Bannister irrespective of the outcome of the meeting. Paul Holmes, at least, agreed to accept the outcome of the meeting. Therefore, Reissmann was nominated with 58 votes in her favour, Paul Holmes received 30 votes, and about 30 Socialist Party members abstained. Therefore, Reissmann was endorsed by the United Left meeting, but we are still likely to have two left wing General Secretary candidates in the case on an election.
The problem with this process is that rather than fostering unity, which was the stated intention, it just intensified division. The fault, unfortunately, lies with the two largest left organisations in Unison, the SWP and the Socialist Party, particularly the former. When the first meeting was held in January, we were in Unison heading towards an important NEC election, and to the Local Government Special Conference, where rank and file activists won a significant symbolic victory over the current leadership. A healthy left would have used the January meeting as an opportunity to build for a united intervention in both, in the hope that a spirit of unity could be fostered from which a joint candidate could emerge. However, it is quite clear that from the outset that both the SWP and the Socialist Party were set upon standing their own candidate. When it became clear that the SWP would dominate the selection process, the Socialist Party simply abstained from it, declaring that they would stand Bannister whatever the outcome. The SWP, on the other hand, attempted to hijack the process and foist their own candidate on the rest of the left. It must be said that, in a formal democratic sense, the SWP clearly won the United Left nomination, however it only did so by ensuring it had large numbers of its own members in the room. It might be argued that irrespective of what organisation they are from, those Unison members had every right to vote for their preferred candidate, but this misses the point. It is clear that the majority, if not all, of those people in attendance at the meeting who were not members of one of the two rival socialist parties voted for Paul Holmes. An organisation like the Socialist Workers Party should know that while they may have a certain weight in numbers compared to other left organisations, within Unison as a whole they are still very marginal, and if they are to run a decent General Secretary campaign then they will need to mobilise numbers way beyond their own ranks. While they may be able to win a show of hands in a meeting of socialist activists, this does not at all indicate their popularity within Unison as a whole. This does not necessarily mean running someone other than an SWP member, but if they are to run one of their own, they will need to win the rest of the left, or at least a good number of them, to the idea of supporting her and campaigning for her. Such tactics as packing meetings do not foster such an attitude, and alienate more people than they convince.
There is a more fundamental problem with the nomination of Karen Reissmann as General Secretary candidate, which was expressed by someone from the floor during the debate last night. The Socialist Workers Party a couple of years ago was embroiled in a damaging internal battle which lost it at least 50 percent of its members, when it attempted to cover up sexual assaults perpetrated by one of its then leaders Martin Smith. A transcript of a session of its annual conference where the issue was discussed (this session was a key part of the cover-up) was leaked online. Reissmann presided over that session, and throughout the faction fight was a vocal and loyal supporter of Martin Smith and the SWP Central Committee. The SWP are so keen to secure the United Left endorsement as part of an attempt to rehabilitate themselves in the movement, and also to prove to their own members that they haven’t been damaged by the incident. That many good activists, disgusted by the SWP’s behaviour, would simply walk away from any United Left campaign headed by Reissmann and dominated by the SWP should be an important consideration. That the SWP’s primary motivation is its own sectarian interest, rather than those of the movement and the left of the union as a whole, should not be forgotten. That is why they have behaved in this manner.
There are some important reasons why a united left wing candidate for a future General Secretary election is desirable. The bureaucracy is divided as to who, if anyone, should take over from Prentis, and unlike in previous years their support may be split. It is extremely unlikely that, even if this is the case, a far left candidate will win. However, its chances of getting a respectable vote are greatly diminished if it is similarly divided. More importantly, the left should see General Secretary elections not only as an opportunity to win a leadership contest, or propagate their own group, but rather see them as an opportunity to build an argument for a fighting anti-austerity union amongst the membership. On that score, standing more than one candidate is a duplication of effort. Dividing and demoralising activists ensures that many people who would be willing to dedicate themselves to such a task are left passive, or even pushed into the camp of other candidates.
If the left can’t get its own house in order why should members trust it with their union? Why should they vote for them at all?