The victory of left candidates in Unison's NEC election could tip the balance in favour of a more combative, member-led union, writes Nathan Street
The results of the Unison NEC elections were announced this past Friday 11 June, with left wingers winning a majority for the first time in the union's current existence of 20 years. The left-wing grouping #TimeforRealChange candidates won 23 of the 37 candidates they put forward for regional posts, with strongholds in North West, Yorkshire & Humberside, Greater London, South East and West Midlands in particular.
This slate won a further 14 of the 19 candidates advocated for in the National and Service Group seats – with sweeps in the Local Government, Higher Education, Community, Water Environment & Transport, and Young Members seats. Overall, the left won 41 of the 68 seats, which should give them a majority on the NEC. The most prominent losing candidate was Wendy Nichols, the Labour NEC member.
These NEC votes should be seen in the context of the General Secretary Election earlier in 2021. Following on from a very strong showing in the General Secretary election, the Unison Action Broad Left official candidate Paul Holmes and supporters were able to galvanise that energy for the #TimeforRealChange campaign in these NEC elections.
The left vote was unfortunately divided between 3 candidates in a first-past-the-post election handing the position to the continuity-Prentis, centrist candidate Christine McAnea. This is a narrative in which some may see parallels with developments in the Unite General Secretary election. There were many calls at the time inaccurately speculating that Roger McKenzie would be the best placed left-leaning candidate to win. But the rank-and-file candidate Holmes (45,220 votes) - whose campaign centred around truly building branches - had a groundswell of grassroots support, getting over 3 times as many votes as McKenzie (14,450 votes) and 4 times as many as Hugo Pierre (10,382 votes). Pierre still ran, despite losing the vote for the Unison Action Broad nomination. The votes of these 3 candidates combined added up for a total left vote of 52.3%, higher than McAnea’s total of 63,900.
However, the results of the general secretary vote did at least have a positive impact in showing many left-wing Unison members where the popularity of the left lay, so when it was time for the NEC elections they could mostly unify behind the #TimeforRealChange campaign. It highlighted that there is real potential for a unified left to win within Unison, with Holmes himself winning a Service Group Local Government seat.
Whilst unfortunately, there were still reports of some division on the left - withvsome candidates running in opposition to Broad Left candidates which acted to split some of the left vote and almost certainly lose some seats from left control that would have otherwise been won - this division was thankfully not too commonplace and detrimental to the left results overall.
To some, Unison has been seen as in the corner of the Labour right and too focused on advocacy and case work, but prone to timidity and undue compromise when confronting employers or Tories, despite what could be a real strength in 1.3 million members. This could be the beginnings of a shift to a more combative rank-and-file, member-led union. The new NEC could act to hold the current General Secretary to account. How this new left-wing majority NEC will vote to determine Presidents of Unison and representatives to Trade Union Congress General Council remains to be seen.
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