Unison Union Contingent. Photo: Rwendland/ cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, linked at bottom of article Unison Union Contingent. Photo: Rwendland/ cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, linked at bottom of article

Despite left candidates receiving the majority of the votes in Unison’s General Secretary election, the split vote meant the candidate of the right has won, writes Karen Buckley

Christina McAnea has won the Unison election and becomes Unison’s first female General Secretary. McAnea was previously one of the assistant general secretaries (and responsible for collective bargaining and negotiation).  She was seen by many as the continuity candidate to succeed the centrist, Dave Prentis and was backed by Unison executive and the bulk of Unison’s ruling faction (though she also had solid support in Scotland where she is from originally). 

According to official figures, the final votes were:

Christina McAnea – 63,900 (47.7%)

Paul Holmes – 45,220 (33.76%)

Roger McKenzie – 14,450 (10.79%)

Hugo Pierre – 10,382 (7.75%)

As there are over 1.3 million members in Unison, this means approximately only 10% of members voted. This is similar to previous years (the last leadership election was less than 10%).

This result will come as a relief to Prentis fans, as well as those of Keir Starmer as McAnea is expected to follow a similar political line to Prentis who endorsed Starmer and voted in his favour on the national executive committee. The other three candidates, seen as from the Labour left, had said they wanted to change the union’s financial arrangement with Labour.

However, for those of us on the left in Unison, this result is not what we wanted. Paul Holmes was the preferred candidate for a number of us. He was backed by Unison’s left-wing faction, Unison Action Broad left, and had endorsements from people such as John McDonnell MP, film director Ken Loach, and actor Maxine Peake.

Holmes, a rank-and-file member who is openly socialist in his views, offered a much more radical left vision for Unison. He has an impressive track record of being on the side of workers in their disputes. He won as the Unison Action Broad left candidate between himself and Socialist Party candidate, Hugo Pierre.

However, Pierre continued to stand, as did Roger McKenzie, a Labour left candidate (currently one of Unison’s assistant general secretaries) and this split the left vote. If a single left candidate had been agreed upon, it’s very likely we’d now have a left-wing Unison leader.  What a victory for the left that would have been.

Prentis’ reign as general secretary undermined any resistance to Tony Blair and there was little if any resistance to Tory austerity. Left wing voices were sidelined or pushed out and there was no serious coordinated fight to protect services, jobs, terms, or conditions. And in the midst of a health crisis, the union with nearly half a million members who are health workers has done little to challenge the government’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic.

Although McAnea is not described as right wing, she has never criticised Prentis and has little alternative vision for the direction of the union. So will she do a better job than Prentis? Will she take the fight to the Tories and stand shoulder to shoulder with union members?

In an interview with Left Foot Forward prior to the vote for general secretary McAnea commented, “coming out of the pandemic, the economy is going to crash. It will be public sector workers who have to deal with it. They’re funded through the public purse and have to pay the price as well.”

With a number of major union General Secretary elections upcoming, this result should be a wake-up call for the left.

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