It has come to our attention that current Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis is planning to continue in his role. However, rather than going through the tedious formality of holding an election, he plans to ask Unison’s National Executive Council to simply extend his term of office.
Unison’s rules clearly state that a General Secretary’s term of office is five years, and Prentis was last elected in 2010. Many Unison members were therefore naively expecting a fresh election this year. In fact, a number of people have already indicated their wish to stand. However, Prentis may be seeking to exploit a potential loophole in order to secure an extension. While Unison’s own rules state that a General Secretary election must be held every five years, the Tory anti-union legislation states that a trade union general secretary must stand for re-election, or step down, after five years unless he or she is within five years of retirement. Serendipitously, a previous Unison president changed Prentis’s retirement age to 72 (he is currently 68), and he therefore falls within that category. He may therefore manage to get the NEC to “interpret” the rule book to allow him to continue as General Secretary.
As mentioned above, a number of potential candidates have indicated their wish to stand in the General Secretary election. Heather Wakefield (Head of Local Government (who is currently being victimised by Prentis) and Roger McKenzie (Assistant General Secretary) have both indicated an interest in standing. There are perhaps three lay-activists of the left who have also expressed an interest – Karen Reissmann (Socialist Workers Party and NEC member), Roger Bannister (Socialist Party and NEC member) and Paul Holmes (Labour Party and NEC member). These last three still hope that a single hard left candidate can stand with the support of the others.
Prentis has for a long time been considered to represent the right wing Blairite core of the Unison apparatus. Unfortunately, there is no consensus amongst the right as to who should be the designated heir. Karen Jennings (Assistant General Secretary), Bronwyn McKenna (Assistant General Secretary) and Liz Snape (Assistant General Secretary and Chair of the Unison Slytherin Caucus); have all indicated an interest. It is probably this lack of consensus which motivates Prentis’s drive to extend his term without election. There is a concern amongst the apparatchiks that a divided right vote may allow a left contender to win. Prentis is therefore presenting himself to the right as a caretaker until it can get itself organised for a coronation.
Prentis and his supporters’ argument is likely to be that in this current period – massive wave of austerity attacks, new Tory majority government, etc. – Unison would be damaged by a divisive General Secretary election with a large number of different candidates. Much better to keep the General Secretary position in a safe pair of hands for now. This is a nonsense. Firstly, as was outlined above, this is nothing but a cover for the right wing’s real agenda which is to ensure any candidate other than one of their own isn’t elected. Secondly, this reasoning flies in the face of basic democratic principles. A genuinely contested General Secretary election, where different candidates outline their plans for the future, their strategy for resisting austerity, their assessment of past defeats; should not damage our union it should strengthen it. It could bring the debate on these issues to members, activists, branches and self-organised groups throughout Unison, and allow all of us to have a say on the direction of our organisation. Furthermore, five-yearly elections are our opportunity to hold the General Secretary to account, to pass a verdict on their leadership to date.
This may be what Prentis is really scared of.