There should be no rerun of the Unison union’s 2015 general secretary election that saw Dave Prentis re-elected for a fourth term despite numerous flaws. That was the Assistant Certification Officer (ACO) Mary Stacey ruling this week.
Prentis’ challengers Roger Bannister, John Burgess and Heather Wakefield and 11 other union members had made complaints to the Certification Officer. This government official oversees unions’ finances and internal rules.
An unprecedented number of complaints were also made to the general secretary election’s returning officer, the Electoral Reform Services (ERS). These were mainly about rule-breaking by senior officials.
Unison has said it “welcomes the decision of the ACO to uphold the result and reject the call from the complainants for a rerun”. But the 114-page decision includes some extremely damning criticism.
Unison has yet to comment on the “cover up” of the misdeeds of senior officials and their “interference” with the running of the election. These officials are described as “bullying”, “aggressive” and “swaggering”.
That only ordinary members fighting for accountability exposed this is an indictment of Unison’s national leadership.
Stacey ruled against holding a rerun, arguing that there wasn’t enough evidence that the flaws listed affected the final result.
The London meeting
At the top of a list of complaints of malpractice and rule breaking in the election were the actions of the union’s Greater London Regional Management Team (RMT).
These only came to light through a whistle-blower’s recording of a meeting on 21 October 2015.
Linda Perks, who was regional secretary at the time, used that meeting of full time paid union officials “to campaign for Mr Prentis' re-election”. The meeting was “during work time”, and Perks had “the support of her RMT”.
“She instructed her staff also to campaign for Mr Prentis in defiance of the election procedures,” Stacey added.
Stacey contends that “Perks knew that she was breaching Unison rules in the meeting and seeking to enlist the collusion of her staff”. And she acted “in breach of the rules quite flagrantly”.
Stacey also points out how other senior regional managers present supported Perks. For example, when she told staff not to leave an email trail of wrongdoing, RMT member Vicky Easton backed her up.
Or when she was “prompted” by London RMT member Chris Remington to make another point, Perks said not to get “caught out saying vote for Dave”.
“The tone of the meeting is utterly partisan,” wrote Stacey.
“Ms Perks' tone is not just confident and swaggering in so openly breaking the rules, but chilling in its brazenness and demonstration of unchecked power.”
Perks apparently then “became embroiled in a farcical attempt to pay for the room hire from her own bank account, retrospectively after the tape had been released.
“It was a blatant and ineffective attempt to cover up the truth of the meeting.”
Stacey asserts that “the RMT were also directly involved in the breach of the rules and have sought to collude with Ms Perks in the cover up”.
The ACO said “the union breached” election procedures “in that the union's funds, property and resources were impermissibly used to campaign for a particular candidate”.
These breaches related to London region meetings in September and October 2015 at which Perks was present. It also refers to communications from Unison branches and other nominating bodies.
Unison insisted it was not responsible for Perks’ actions—the most senior official in the union’s largest region. But the ACO was clear that Unison was “liable for the misuse of her position”.
'Team Dave' and the returning officer
Yet it wasn’t just senior London officials that came in for intense scrutiny at hearings held in December and February. The actions of a group of officials nationally, known as “Team Dave”, were also scrutinised.
The union’s assistant general secretary Cliff Williams directed the Team Dave network of dozens of senior Unison employees. The defence was that Team Dave campaigned in their personal time.
Yet it was founded at a meeting during the union's 2015 annual conference in a hotel booked and paid for using Unison resources.
Stacey noted there was “considerable blurring of the distinction between work and non-work time” and that Team Dave “interpret their working time extremely liberally”.
Williams encouraged the team to “maximise every opportunity to capture support for Dave”, to “identify official meetings” to “piggyback” onto and “integrate” with their campaign. The complainants argued these emails led to Perks’ action and indicated a systematic breach.
This view wasn’t accepted as no evidence had been presented beyond the emails.
But Williams was blasted for his action when the returning officer was “lent on” by senior officials “to change its guidance against its better judgment”.
Stacey said Williams was “trying to throw his weight around” when a decision by the returning officer did not fall favourably for Team Dave. An email from Williams to ERS’ Alex Lonie titled “Challenge to your ruling” was “extremely aggressive” and its tone was “bullying”.
“Mr Williams cheerily admitted in evidence that he knew perfectly well there was no route of appeal,” said Stacey. Yet “he simply used it as a method of pressurising them to change their mind”.
Other senior officials were involved in overriding guidance Lonie had issued regarding rules for what union nominating bodies can and can’t say about the candidate they support.
The decision was changed after ERS was “persuaded by senior members of the union”. Stacey said, “I find that it constitutes interference.” Elsewhere in the 114-page document the ACO noted that this was just weeks before ERS was handed another three-year contract to run Unison elections.
What happened in the investigation?
On the day the result was announced “an extraordinary email” was sent out by Unison’s president and vice president. This was after the October meeting tape went public, and complaints had been made.
The email was sent to the national executive (NEC), regional officials, service group executive chairs, senior and national managers, and the London region managers. It said that a “forensic analysis” of the Perks recording suggested that “the probability of tampering is exceptionally high”.
The email said the “results have been passed to the Investigating Officer”, assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie.
But Stacey wrote that “McKenzie said he did not know about the forensic analysis”.
The ACO asked, “Does this report exist? If so, where is it? Why wasn't it given to Mr McKenzie if it so conclusively demonstrated that the tape was some kind of fake? Why didn't Mr McKenzie mention it in his report or ask to see it when he must have known about it and received the President's email?”
She continued, “The President's email is thus a classic example of an attempt by the victors to write the history (regardless of accuracy) and denigrate those whom they see as their vanquished adversaries.
“It is unsurprising that no witnesses came forward to Mr McKenzie's investigation after this email had been sent.”
Also in the email was the name of Jon Rogers, just one of the three Unison NEC members that made a complaint about the Perks recording. On the same day Rogers was threatened with libel proceedings by solicitors acting on behalf of the newly re-elected general secretary, Dave Prentis.
McKenzie’s terms of reference, which he received from president Wendy Nicholls, were “interestingly worded” as the emphasis “is on the person who made the allegation—Mr Rogers”.
Stacey thought this did “not sit easily with the assertion that people were encouraged to come forward as witnesses and reminded of the whistleblowing protection”. She also noted, “The day after he had been appointed to investigate, Mr McKenzie tweeted his support for Mr Prentis.”
This was “ill-considered (at best)”.
“Consciously or unconsciously he chose to ignore” that other senior London officials were involved “since it is immediately apparent from a first reading of the transcript” of the recording. McKenzie had “chose to take a narrow, possibly blinkered, approach”.
There were two “extremely troubling” aspects of McKenzie’s report.
One was that “no witnesses other than those supportive of Ms Perks were willing to come forward”. Stacey argues this “demonstrates at worst a culture of fear and at best cynicism and lack of confidence in the investigation”. “Secondly, the RMT in particular have covered up for Ms Perks.”
Unison must learn the lessons
The suspension of Linda Perks for almost a year while Unison conducted an investigation is described as being handled with “remarkable clemency and leniency”.
“The subsequent leisurely disciplinary proceedings of Ms Perks and outcome do not inspire confidence or serve as a deterrent to future over-zealous paid officials.
“Some might think the move to National Secretary in Head Office on unspecified strategic projects retaining all pay and benefits represents reward rather than punishment,” the ACO commented.
Stacey further noted, “It is now over 18 months since the Election and there has been little progress made towards such things as the adoption of a whistleblowing policy so far.”
This all makes for grim reading and will rightly shock not just Unison members but all trade unionists. It would not help to simply focus on union democracy and structures—unions increase participation through struggle.
But the incoming NEC surely must act to write the wrongs in Stacey’s decision.