First one, now two union elections threaten to overshadow Labour’s prospects in the general election. This week, Unison – the biggest public sector union and one of Labour’s biggest donors, will decide whether to hold an election this summer for general secretary. And there may be a challenger in the wings, which would drag the union’s loyal links to Labour into the spotlight.
Dave Prentis, Unison’s current general secertary and a Labour loyalist, was last elected in 2005, and by law union bosses have to be elected every five years. But here’s the thing. Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Prentis was born in 1948, not 1950, and turns 62 this year. The law also states that a union leader within five years of retirement can stay on till they do retire – in 2013 in Prentis’ case.
But the last union general secretary to try to stay in office past five years without an election was Derek Simpson – and he was forced to stand for election in the end. True, he’d have been over 65 by the end of his term. But Unison’s national executive have been asked to rule on the issue at a meeting this week, suggesting that there’s no great certainty. The meeting was unscheduled and announced with just two weeks’ notice.
Will Prentis tell his executive he wants to stay on without a vote? Will he call an election and run? Or call an election and not run? I don’t know.
But I have learned that one person is being encouraged to seek to replace Prentis. Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government, is the preferred candidate of a number of senior figures in the union, according to reliable accounts. Wakefield is seen as somewhat to the left of Prentis, and several of her supporters expect her to hold a ballot on the union’s affiliation to Labour and shake up the political fund. (Disclaimer: this blog in no way suggests that she will do that, or even that she’ll stand, and has no desire to put words into Heather Wakefield’s mouth!)
If an election is called and Wakefield wins, she could be in power by the end of June. So the direction of Britain’s second biggest Labour-supporting union would be being argued over at the same time as Labour was trying to drum up support… including among Unison’s 1.3 million members in local government and other public services. Core vote, anyone?
This is exciting stuff. If Prentis decides to soldier on, one of Unison’s left-wing activists could well mount a legal challenge. Even if an election is called, it wouldn’t necessarily please everyone. NEC member Jon Rogers (who incidentally challenged Prentis for the top job in 2005) has blogged about how he fears the union being forced to hold a snap election that would conclude just after the general election – an unecessary distraction from the issue of keeping Labour in power, he argues, when an election could be held on a longer timetable.
Unison head office will doubtless want to avoid the acrimony that accompanied the Unite Amicus election in 2008. Question is, can they avoid it? And when it’s all over, will the union opt to tighten the financial screws on the party?
Update: The Unite election was of course in 2009, not 2008 – my mistake.
Also, for the avoidance of doubt this blogpost is a personal blog based on personal information not obtained through Tribune.