Will Unison election overshadow general election?

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.

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9 Responses to “Will Unison election overshadow general election?”

  1. John Gray Says:

    Hi Rene
    “an unnecessary distraction from the issue of keeping Labour in power, he argues”? I don’t think that Rogers said that in that post. Instead he was going on about “through the period of a General Election in which UNISON needs to make our voice heard”. In reality – Rogers and co are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of the Tories winning. They prefer the Tories in power and are looking forward to years of noisy oppositionalism.

  2. René Lavanchy Says:

    Hi John,

    Well, looking back at the post I admit it’s open to interpretation. I guess I was putting together Mr Rogers being both a) opposed to a snap GS election and b) a Labour Party supporter. Jon, the comments thread is yours…

  3. Andrew Fisher Says:

    Jon is one of the most Labour loyal socialists I know. Though we often disagree, he is a sincere socialist fighting within the Party. The idea that any socialist (in or out the Party) is looking forward to a Tory government is nonsense.

    I’d also question this ‘Wakefield is a lefty’ thesis. Not sure where the evidence for that is, beyond hearsay and wishful thinking?

  4. Alex Halligan Says:

    CPB decides what goes on in Unison, you can be sure that little kabala will want dave to stay firmly where he is.

  5. René Lavanchy Says:

    Hi Andrew,

    If it’s hearsay and wishful thinking, it’s somebody else’s, not mine. I only say that’s how Heather Wakefield is perceived. If you have a contrary view it’d be great to hear.

  6. Anon Says:

    John Gray attacks Jon Rogers for relishing a tory victory?

    As a lambeth UNISON member I am so thankful to god that I have someone as committed to trade unions and the labour party as Jon Rogers.

    He has consistently defended members for years and is a bloody good activist. THank god we dont have somebody as useless as John Gray who cant even tell who is pulling his strings within UNISON.

    The people pulling your strings in UNISON John couldnt give a shit about the party you claim to represent – you need to wake up and work out whose side your on – the side of the workers, our party and your members ? methinks not.

  7. John Gray Says:

    Hi anon

    I would politely (as always) suggest that you are the one who needs to wake up and smell the coffee comrade. Labour “loyalist” Rogers openly boasts that he regards the Labour government as “the enemy” and anyone who doesn’t agree with him as “Stooges of the ruling classes”.

    Yep, such pointless student union politics is alive and well in the weird and wonderful world of the UNISON disunited ultra left.

  8. piano singing lessons Says:

    The information presented is top notch. I’ve been doing some research on the topic and this post answered several questions.

  9. Mary Egan Says:

    John Gray, I’m not sure what your angling at but I am from the North West, not Lambeth, but have known Jon Rogers for many years – a staunch Labour supporter and quite rightly want the Labour Party to deliver for the working class – he certainly does not want a conservative government and it is ludicrous ANY Labour party or Unison member . John which union are you in? Jon Rogers views are shared many – this Labour Party has to deliver for Local Government workers – stop the cuts – or we should stop our support and review the link.

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