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100,000 say no to New Labour

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Issue 1686

Unison election result

100,000 say no to New Labour

ALMOST 100,000 members of Britain’s biggest union have voted to reject New Labour in favour of a socialist alternative. That is the conclusion of the election for general secretary of the UNISON public sector workers’ union, whose result was announced on Monday.

The vote saw 99,000 people, 44 percent of those who voted, reject Dave Prentis, who supports New Labour, and instead back left wing challengers. Prentis won with 125,584 votes-56 percent of votes cast. Socialist Roger Bannister got 71,021 votes-32 percent of the total. Malkiat Bilku, a leader of the Hillingdon Hospital workers’ battle who stood on a left wing platform, scored 27,785 votes, or 12 percent.

The result shows how the scale of the bitterness with New Labour among UNISON members is pushing people to look to the left. Prentis is the union’s existing deputy general secretary, and has been centrally involved in the UNISON leadership’s desire to cosy up to New Labour. His position allowed him to appear on public platforms and in the media throughout the campaign.

Yet even Prentis recognised the mood of UNISON members and tried to distance himself from New Labour throughout his campaign. So he took a line sharply critical of the government on issues such as the level of the minimum wage. The scale of the left vote is also remarkable given the background within the union. The level of struggle, if measured in strikes and protests, is relatively low. This reflects a lack of confidence among many workers to take action. It is also, at least in part, a result of UNISON leaders’ constant attempts to dampen down and even squash effective resistance to attacks by the government, NHS trusts and New Labour councils.

The left has also been on the receiving end of a savage witch hunt from the union’s leaders, who want to clamp down on anyone who could become a focus for discontent with New Labour. UNISON leaders have suspended several branches which have been at the forefront of resistance to attacks from the employers and critical of the union leadership. These include Birmingham and Sheffield.

Prominent left wing individual activists have been disciplined and even expelled from the union by UNISON leaders. Roddy Slorach is still fighting against his expulsion from UNISON for daring to lead successful strike action against the New Labour council in Glasgow. Candy Udwin and Dave Carr from UCLH hospitals UNISON in London were waiting this week to hear the outcome of the union leaders’ attempt to discipline, and possibly expel, them.

Yet despite all this, 100,000 union members have shown they reject the union leaders’ approach and back a left challenge. That should give enormous encouragement to all activists and socialists within the union. The lack of enthusiasm for Prentis and the union leaders’ stance was also expressed in the low turnout of just 17 percent. That is 7 percent less than the last election for general secretary in 1995.

On that occasion Rodney Bickerstaffe won with 48 percent of votes-151,000. The combined vote of two left wing challengers amounted to 73,000, just 23 percent. A right wing challenger to Bickerstaffe scored 93,000 votes-29 percent. The overall shift leftwards seen in this week’s result is stark. The key in the months ahead is for activists and socialists in the union to look outwards to the 100,000 who rejected New Labour in the election and the thousands more in the union who are just as unhappy with New Labour.

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