In the recent election for the General Secretary of UNISON, the largest public sector union in Britain with 1.5 million members, Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister came second taking 17% of the vote (41,406 votes). The existing General Secretary, Dave Prentice won with 76% of the vote (184,769 votes). Jon Rogers ( Labour Party member stood for the United Left and was supported by the SWP) can third with 7.48% of the vote (18,306 votes). Below is an interview with Socialist Party member Roger Bannister.
Good result for Socialist Party member in Unison general secretary election
What do you think your result in the general secretary election means?
I think it clearly shows the effect of Dave Prentis being the sitting candidate. He increased his vote by a few thousand but obviously the combined left vote was a lot less than the combined anti-establishment vote last time round. (In the election held in 2000 Dave Prentice took 55.9% or 125,584 votes and Roger Bannister 31.65% or 71,021 votes).
Last time the election was contested, Dave Prentis wasn’t the sitting candidate. He was just the candidate favoured by the bureaucracy. So the weight which the bureaucracy and the bureaucratic machine can add to the campaign is clearly evident in this result.
I think it also shows a great deal about the change in politics in the trade union because the campaign took a slightly different tone than last time. Dave Prentis, attacked me and the other candidate, the United Left candidate, as being dangerous extremists. Nonetheless he has had to contest this election putting forward a left face. He’s been promoting and supporting the idea of industrial action in local government against New Labour, over the local government supperannuation scheme.
Over the past few months, during this campaign and in the run-up to this campaign, he’s been making anti-New Labour statements. I think that shows he does appreciate that there’s a mood of dissatisfaction amongst the membership, as far as the New Labour government is concerned.
He’s had to give voice to that and this campaign has been partly his opportunity to do that. He realises he would have lost support has he not taken that kind of step.
Prentis would have not the same majority if he had been advocating support for a Labour government and therefore opposing anything that might have upset Labour’s plans for the general election, including taking industrial action against the government.
If he had been as crude as that and just gone for out and out support for New Labour and tried to keep things quiet in the union, he would have got a lower vote. He would have alienated a big layer of activists in the trade union. He would have been making statements which would have been out of keeping with the overwhelming mood of the members as well.
I also think that the Labour Party issue is partly reflected in the vote that Jon Rogers got for the United Left. The United Left have fudged the position on the Labour Party and will not call for disaffiliation from the Labour Party. Throughout the campaign at every hustings Jon Rogers told his audiences that he personally was a member of the Labour Party and advocated a sort of left reform within the Labour Party. I think that issue above all others is probably responsible for the relatively low vote that he got. 18,306 - about 7.5% of the total poll.
Prentis has had to put on this left face for the general secretary election. Do you think he is prepared to take industrial action, even against the Labour government? If and when Labour get reelected, do you think he’ll maintain that stance as the Labour government unleashes even more attacks, not just against pensions but against jobs, on privatisation and other issues?
I’m not prepared to make a prediction on that. There’s a certain logic that says he will become less vociferous in his opposition to the New Labour government. Although there are rumours around in trade union circles at the moment, beyond UNISON as well, that there’s a general realisation that a Blairite third term will be a problematic third term - for trade unionists and particularly for public sector trade unions.
I believe that the sensible section of the trade union bureaucracy are even now anticipating having to take more militant action in the third term than has been the case in the first and second terms. I think it’s a question of survival for a lot of them. It will be very interesting after the election to see exactly where Dave Prentis goes on key issues. As it will to see how other general secretaries and trade union leaders go on key issues against the government.
As we speak we’re still awaiting the result of the industrial action ballot amongst local government workers on pensions. If the ballots in UNISON and other public sector unions are in favour of strike action and the strike happens on 23 March, what would we be calling for after the strike in preparation for more government attacks on pensions? If the governments doesn’t retreat, what do you think we should be doing next?
I think the key to the pensions struggle is the unity that can be forged across the public sector trade unions. I think there will be a ‘yes’ vote in UNISON’s local government ballot. There is a great deal of member concern about it and people object to having their pensions being used as a political football for the benefit of the New Labour government.
So I’m fairly confident that we will get a good ‘yes’ vote for strike action. The 23 March will be supported by UNISON in local government and by PCS in the civil service. The key issue then is what comes after 23 March, because I don’t believe the government will back down, I think they will attempt to brazen it out.
Other unions are beginning to come onto the scene as far as the pensions campaign is concerned. And in fact other sections of UNISON - like higher education, transport and possibly the NHS. I know the NUT are conducting a consultation exercise at the moment. The NASUWT has conducted a consultation exercise and I understand that a date in the middle of April has been named for another day of action which would include NATFHE as well.
So I think the key to the pensions struggle will be the degree of unity that we can build across the public sector. I believe the second day of action will be bigger than the first day of action.
I think Blair thinks that he can possibly tough it out and show how hard he is with the trade unions. He may be right. The problem is Blair looks at the trade unions as just another pressure group and there’s a totally different scenario with taking on pressure groups than big sections of the working class moving on to the political stage. And I think Blair may well learn that lesson over the next few months.
What would you say to Socialist Party members and supporters who helped in your campaign? Would you consider their role particularly important in the campaign?
The first thing I’d say is a great big thank you to all the members of the Socialist Party and our supporters that did so much to campaign for me during this ballot. It’s the first time I’ve contested one of these elections without the support of a broad left-type body.
The fact that from that position we have been able to achieve a vote far higher than the ‘broad left’ body, or at least the United Left in this instance, shows what’s been achieved. I know a great deal of work has been done by Socialist Party members. They’ve been leafleting town halls and other public sector buildings. They have taken this campaign out to ordinary UNISON members in a way that couldn’t have been done without them, so big thanks for all that.
I think they should take heart form the vote. It’s a credible vote, given the fact that Dave Prentis was the incumbent candidate and the points that I’ve already made. Things don’t stop for very long in the working class movement anyway and next month in April we’re going to be fighting the National Executive Council (NEC) elections. Socialist Party members on the NEC will be defending our seats and others will be trying to get on - like Glenn Kelly and Nancy Taaffe in the greater London region.
I would hope that the work and assistance that was given to me during the general secretary election will be repeated and extended to the comrades who are standing in the NEC elections. So we can move from the base of support that we’ve built up for our position to putting that in concrete terms and increasing our representation on the NEC.
What do think is the future for the Left in the union given that the United Left has had what they must see as a disappointing result?
I think that is the biggest issue we have to deal with on the left in the union. In June last year the Socialist Party pulled out of the United Left after a great deal of internal debate and soul-searching.
It wasn’t an easy step to take. I won’t go into the reasons now, they’ve been well-publicised in our paper and elsewhere. I believe this vote shows we were correct. It shows the United Left have not put down lasting roots at either rank and file level or even activist level in the trade union.
They have been pushed into a very poor third place. The independent lefts within the United Left will in particular have to rethink their existing strategy. This seems to be that the most important thing is to keep organisations like the Socialist Workers’ Party on board.
The fact that under their leadership the United Left has done so disappointingly is a message the independent lefts have to take very seriously.
We’ve always been in favour and I’m still in favour of a genuine broad-based non-sectarian left body to put up maximum opposition to the right wing and the bureaucracy and to argue for militant policies for trade unionists and left socialist policies within the union. There is still a need for that organisation. It is not the United Left, this election shows that. I’d like to start having discusssions about where the left goes from here with other lefts of good faith and build on what’s been achieved.