Socialist Party
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15 October 2008

Unison right-wing's insecurity begins to show

The growing insecurity of Unison's ruling right wing clique became visible at the national executive council (NEC) meeting on 8 October.

The meeting began with an announcement by the president that the names of all people who spoke would be recorded to give preference to people who had not yet contributed.

This clear attempt to limit the contributions of the left blew up in her face when, as usual, with a few notable exceptions, no right wingers volunteered to speak anyway. Discussion on major issues affecting members, such as equal pay, pensions and pay claim strategy was dominated by the left, with Socialist Party members Glenn Kelly and Roger Bannister playing a full part.

The president also made it clear that she did not want a discussion on the membership report. This was presumably because of the glaring contrast between impressive growth in local government in August, reflecting new recruits as a result of strike action over pay in July, and the NHS, where Unison did a deal with the non-TUC Royal College of Nurses to force a below-inflation pay deal through. This would have further exposed the inherent weakness of the right wing's strategy.

General secretary Dave Prentis announced a complete U-turn in his position on public-sector pay. A few months ago he was playing down the prospect of united action across public-sector unions, emphasising the inter-union divisions, different negotiating bodies, settlement timetables etc.

Faced with a collapse of this strategy, with Unison now being forced to try to reopen the NHS deal as a result of pressure from low-paid NHS members in the face of mounting inflation, and the abandonment of strike action in favour of arbitration in local government, Prentis has started promoting the 'Swedish' model, where the public-sector unions negotiate jointly with the government on the size of the settlement, then individually with employer bodies over its distribution.

A volte face of this magnitude provides yet another example of right-wing political bankruptcy, desperation and uncertainty.

In a vain attempt to whip up enthusiasm, and justify Unison's Labour Party affiliation, the Chair of the Labour Link delivered a rambling discourse on Unison's intervention at the recent Labour Party conference. Unfortunately for him, accounts of speeches, fringe meetings and hob-nobbing with ministers ring hollow against the background of cuts in real earnings, reduction of public services and growth of privatisation, which is New Labour's policy for the public services.

It is this contrast between right-wing strategy and tactics and the realities of life for ordinary Unison members that is at the heart of the right wing's dilemma.

Whilst they may gloat at their 'victories' over the left in respect of issues like the single status agreement, pay and pensions, it is beginning to dawn on them that these moves create a mood of disappointment and dissatisfaction amongst a growing number of members. This provides the basis for a left challenge to the right wing in the NEC elections next year.