Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 24 February 2016

Unison at a crossroads

Neil Cafferky

Industrially and politically Britain's largest public sector union is under siege from the Tories' relentless austerity agenda.

Internally, the union is mired in scandal. A leaked recording from the Greater London region led to allegations of interference into the recent general secretary election by senior paid employees of the union in favour of the incumbent, Dave Prentis.

Unison employees are forbidden in the union's rule book to campaign in elections unless it is in their spare time. Further leaks of emails, allegedly from assistant general secretary Cliff Williams, appear to show campaigning on behalf of Dave Prentis by employees of the union outside of the Greater London region.


These revelations have raised serious questions about the integrity of Unison's democratic procedures. Despite Dave Prentis's recent victory in the general secretary election, is it still possible there can be change at the top of the union?

Opposition to the Prentis group has been growing over a number of years in the union. The group suffered its first serious reverse with the defeat of the witch-hunt of four Socialist Party members on trumped up charges of racism.

Out of the anti-witch-hunt campaign came 'Reclaim the Union' (RtU). RtU is a loose alliance of left groups and activists that agreed to stand under a common banner for elections.

An important organising principle of RtU is the 'consensus method' - where candidates' election slates can only be put together if all parties are in agreement.

This has been vital in keeping together an often fractious left. It also acts as an example to other forces in the union who might not have been traditionally aligned to the left. It can help to reassure them that they would not be railroaded into anything that they did not agree with, should they look to cooperate with the left in the future.

Under the RtU banner the left made steady, if unspectacular, progress in elections. However, the most significant change in the direction of the union came from within the Prentis camp.

Following an underwhelming pay deal in 2014 a layer of activists began to move into open opposition to Prentis and the union's leadership. This came to a head following the disastrous local government pay campaign for 2015-16.


Manchester branch initiated a successful move for a special recall conference on the pay offer. Against the recommendation of Prentis loyalists, conference voted for a supplementary pay claim in 2016. It was the most serious reversal for the union leadership in years.

In parallel to the pay dispute there was a realignment of the Local Government Service Group Executive (SGE). Former supporters of Prentis, supported by the left, now had a majority over Prentis loyalists.

Last month, on the initiative of Socialist Party members, the SGE voted to back the call for councils to implement a legal 'no cuts' budget. The current local government SGE is a model of what Unison as a whole could become, where different groups in the union work together to put forward a fighting programme.

The general secretary election in late 2015 presented the best opportunity in 20 years to bring about change in the union. Unfortunately a series of short sighted mistakes meant this opportunity was not grasped.

Heather Wakefield's decision to run for general secretary was a significant moment in the battle to change the union leadership.

Her candidacy represented a serious split in the leadership of Unison. Her background as head of local government and as a former Prentis supporter meant she would probably gain more votes from members tired of the Prentis regime but not yet ready to back a candidate coming from the longstanding left.

As the only female candidate in the race she would also be a powerful draw in a union of 80% women members.

No-cuts budgets

Socialist Party members in Unison have had differences with Heather Wakefield in the past over issues like industrial action and the witch-hunt. We continue to have differences over the question of 'no cuts' budgets for councils.

However, for the reasons given above it was felt at the time that she was potentially a major threat to Dave Prentis. If she were the sole candidate facing Prentis then it might be possible to defeat him.

If there was to be a three or four-way battle for votes then Prentis would be the inevitable victor. For that reason Socialist Party members began to open up a dialogue to see if a single anti-Prentis candidate could be agreed.

This was widely derided by supporters of the other left candidate, John Burgess. Completely misunderstanding the significance of Wakefield's candidacy they argued she was no different to Prentis and would only take votes from him, allowing a left candidate to come through the middle and win.

On the initiative of Socialist Party member Roger Bannister a meeting was held on 14 October with Heather Wakefield and John Burgess. This was in the period after the close of nominations (9 October) but before the closing date to withdraw a candidacy (16 October).

Roger Bannister offered to withdraw if a single anti-Prentis candidate could be achieved.

After an hour of discussion John Burgess announced he had no intention of withdrawing as he had no mandate to do so from his supporters. He then declared that Roger Bannister and Heather Wakefield were welcome to support his campaign and left the meeting.

In the end John Burgess came last with Heather Wakefield coming second, taking votes off all three candidates (see box), but with Roger Bannister receiving a very good 16,853 votes (12.6%).

The question marks that hang over the general secretary election will have damaging effects for Unison as long as Dave Prentis is in charge. They will hamper the union's ability to wage an industrial and political campaign to defend its members from the Tories' austerity agenda.

So far, the right wing press has paid little attention to the scandal. That will quickly change if the union finds itself in a confrontation with the employers.

This poses the question of what to do next for all those seeking change in Unison? In the view of the Socialist Party this begins with a coming together of all anti-Prentis forces in the union with the supporters of Heather Wakefield playing a prominent role.

While there may not be full agreement on every point of programme, there exists enough agreement on issues like democracy in the union and the need for Unison to play a more high-profile role in the fight against austerity for there to be the beginnings of a discussion on how to change the union.

There is an urgent need for all anti-Prentis forces in the union to meet together, possibly at national conference (21-24 June), and begin to hammer out a broader coalition to change the direction of the union.

Socialist Party members in Unison stand ready to do whatever is needed to make this coalition a reality.

Election scandal

The general secretary election scandal has generated two investigations; an internal one headed up by assistant general secretary (AGS) Roger McKenzie, and another 'external' investigation by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). There are a number of complaints before the Trade Union Certification Officer.

The ERS report is now available on the union's website. It concluded there were some valid complaints. However, citing the low vote for Prentis in the London region and the margin of his victory, it concluded this did not have a decisive effect on the outcome of the election and therefore there were no grounds to rerun the election.

Anti-Prentis candidate

It is worth noting in passing that if a single anti-Prentis candidate could have been achieved then Prentis' victory (if he had won at all) would have been narrower, possibly making a refusal to rerun the election harder to justify.

The ERS report also said it could find no evidence that Dave Prentis had any knowledge of the actions of Unison staff in regards to rule breaking.

Superficially, Dave Prentis seems to have been cleared by the ERS. Nonetheless, the ERS report leaves many questions unanswered.

In total the ERS received 157 complaints, 31 of which were deemed 'valid' while 40 were deemed 'invalid'.

In 86 complaints the ERS made no findings at all, citing the fact they were currently under an internal investigation headed up by AGS Roger McKenzie. 83 of these complaints relate to the leaked recording of staff in the Greater London Region that appears to show them organising to win nominations for Dave Prentis' campaign.

The investigation by McKenzie has been complicated by the leaked emails from his fellow AGS Cliff Williams. (Unison has five unelected assistant general secretaries. Their diligent work allows Dave Prentis time to pursue other non-general secretary functions like his paid non-executive directorship of the Bank of England.)

The leaked emails, if they prove to be authentic, seem to indicate AGS Williams directing operations for the campaign to re-elect Dave Prentis, known as 'Team Dave'. One prominent 'Team Dave' member included in the email chain is none other than AGS Roger McKenzie!

The emails contain campaigning advice for Team Dave, including the eyebrow-raising suggestion: "It may be that in some circumstances you may be able to help to 'circumvent' hostile branches by covertly working with sympathetic employer contacts."

Another interesting revelation from the emails is the presence of Mark Ferguson in the email chain. Ferguson was the campaign manager for Blairite candidate Liz Kendall during her bid for leadership of the Labour Party. He has since been given a prominent job in Unison's policy department.

Jeremy Corbyn

During the Labour leadership election Prentis loudly supported the bid of Jeremy Corbyn, a campaign that was popular among Unison members. What are they to make of a key Kendall supporter's involvement in Dave Prentis's campaign? What effect will this have on Dave Prentis' support for Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity politics?

Unison general secretary election - declared on 17 December 2015

Roger Bannister - 16,853 (12.6%)

John Burgess - 15,573 (11.6%)

Dave Prentis - 66,155 (49.4%)

Heather Wakefield - 35,433 (26.4%)

Socialist Party programme for a fighting and democratic Unison

Unison bureaucracy unmasked:

5 plus postage

The Defend the Four Story

Available from Left Books,

PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD

020 8988 8789

Donate to the Socialist Party

Coronavirus crisis - Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • Our 'fighting coronavirus workers' charter', outlines a programme to combat the virus and protect workers' living conditions.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our special coronavirus appeal.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation


Your message: 


In The Socialist 24 February 2016:

What we think

EU referendum: Vote OUT the Tories

Socialist Party news and analysis

Junior doctors: back new strikes

Trident: thousands to march - scrap all nukes!

Butterfields tenants demand action against evictions at Labour estate agent awards

Children take over County Hall in protest at cuts

'Benefit tourism' twaddle

Cameron, Cameron, meal snatcher

Them & Us

People's budgets

Tower Hamlets to take anti-cuts fight into the council chamber

Leeds sets up people's budget campaign

Leeds Labour 'anti-austerity' meeting: jam tomorrow

Socialist Party feature

Unison at a crossroads

International socialist news and analysis

Hong Kong: new year riot

International news in brief

Workplace news and analysis

Victory for striking EDF energy workers

Pensions strike by water workers in Warrington

Fresh round of strikes against fresh round of cuts

Stress, abuse and long hours for London bus drivers

Workers unite to fight pay attack in Leicester

Workplace news in brief

Socialist history

Khrushchev: the Stalinist who denounced Stalin

Socialist readers' comments and reviews

One-woman tragedy's fiery call for revolution


Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Huddersfield: save our A&E!

Momentum must "take the fight to the right"!

Gateshead: reprieve for respite centre

Save Derbyshire children's centres

Wakefield: no fracking, no cuts

Cumbria cuts - the grim reaper

Campaign to save Pent Valley continues

Socialist Party Wales and North West conferences


Home   |   The Socialist 24 February 2016   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleReinstate Tony Smith

triangleA critical election for Unison general secretary

triangleHugo Pierre for Unison general secretary

triangleTower Hamlets council workers strike against wholesale attack on terms and conditions

triangleTrade union activists from across the south of England discuss the battle for safety on the frontline


triangleUCU: election victory for combative rank and file

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: The US presidential election

triangleSocialism Today special issue: Lessons from the Corbyn experience

triangleEquity union general secretary election


triangleChina after the 1949 revolution: the benefits of the planned economy stifled by bureaucracy

triangleTV Review: Chernobyl - Workers' heroism vs sclerotic Stalinism

triangleLeon Trotsky's struggle against Stalinism

Socialist Party:

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: Covid - A young workers' charter

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: The Marikana massacre in South Africa


triangleNational Shop Stewards Network lobbying for a lead from the TUC

Dave Prentis:

triangleReverse Unison's undemocratic nomination of Blairite Starmer

Roger Bannister:

triangleI joined the Socialist Party to fight back

Local government:

triangleCovid-19 pandemic increases financial pressures on Welsh local government


triangleDover: Solidarity with refugees - applause and cheers for socialist ideas to unite working class


triangleTUSC to stand in elections again against pro-austerity politicians


triangleBirmingham Uni: Standing up to racism is not harassment!


triangleTime to relaunch TUSC


trianglePCS executive majority cancels union democracy


triangleJobs, training, pay, we want a future!

Trade union:

triangleHull: Defend Tony Smith!

Labour Party:

triangleLiverpool Socialist Party: The Labour Party - what is its future?

Public sector:

triangleSouth Africa: Building jobs and living wage campaign


triangleWater shortage warning: nationalise now!

News and socialist analysis

News and socialist analysis



Britain's fragile Covid equilibrium is coming to an end



NHS workers: "We deserve a fair wage" - 15% now!



Capitalist profit and the race to develop a vaccine



Covid and the third sector: for public planning, not charity stopgaps



Under the microscope



'Covid marshalls' must be accountable to communities



Blame politicians, not workers and young people



Johnson's brinkmanship over EU deal deepens capitalist splits



Sketch: The rule of six - some guidance from your government



Our lives and livelihoods at stake



Safety overridden in drive to bolster the economy



U-turn Tories' splits are growing



A critical election for Unison general secretary


Minimum wage

Callous Tories threaten not to uprate the minimum wage



Under the microscope

triangleMore News and socialist analysis articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 077 0671 0041



Alphabetical listing

September 2020

August 2020

July 2020

June 2020

May 2020

April 2020

March 2020

February 2020

January 2020