Disunity harms left

Last month's contest to elect a new general secretary of Unison, Britain's biggest trade union, saw a significant advance for the left. Although the contest was won by the bureaucracy's candidate, deputy general secretary Dave Prentis, the combined vote received by the two left candidates - Roger Bannister of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Malkiat Bilku, leader of the sacked Hillingdon hospital cleaners - was 44%. In the previous general secretary election in 1995, Bannister and Yunus Bakhsh, of the Socialist Workers Party, achieved a combined vote of 23%.

Comrade Bannister's personal vote increased substantially, even though the turnout was down from 23% in 1995 to just 16.5%, and his advance came despite the de facto proscription by the bureaucracy of the SPEW-led Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison. Branches had been warned that any funding of the CFDU would be deemed ultra vires and could lead to the suspension of the 'guilty' branch or even the expulsion of branch officers from the union.

Rank and file dissatisfaction with the leadership was apparent, not only in the reduced turnout, but in the fact that Prentis failed to gain significantly from the absence of an openly rightwing candidate. In 1995, almost 30% of the vote had been taken by a rightwinger who had focused his campaign on attacking the union's progressive policy on abortion rights. Without a similar figure this time, you might have expected the leadership's anointed candidate to benefit, and indeed the bureaucracy had put every effort in to winning over the right.

The attack on the CFDU had been only part of an anti-red onslaught by retiring general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe and his staff. While, in common with the class struggle as a whole, the number of strikes and actively pursued industrial disputes in the sectors organised by the union remains historically low, a number of Unison shop stewards who have led those militant actions which have taken place, have faced, or are now facing, disciplinary proceedings on sundry charges, the kernel of which is non-deferment to the authority of the bureaucracy.

The first sally in this crusade, some five years ago, was against SPEW's then still strong influence in Liverpool. Comrade Raf Parkinson and other shop stewards in Liverpool social services were indicted for anti-union activities after leading a walkout of black workers who were protesting against racist managers. The campaign against the comrades was stoked up to a considerable extent by Liverpool Labour MP and witch-hunter extraordinaire Peter Kilfoyle, who succeeded in securing extensive propagation of his views on the matter in the local press. With SPEW's decline, the attention turned to the SWP. Socialist Worker (March 4) reports on the cases of Roddy Slorach, who has already been expelled from Unison "for daring to lead successful strike action against the New Labour council in Glasgow", and Candy Udwin and Dave Carr, militants at London's UCLH hospital who have led several strikes and are at the forefront of fighting New Labour's private finance initiative - ie, the privatisation of the hospital (see Weekly Worker February 10).

The witch-hunting campaign appears to have done little to bolster Bickerstaffe's chosen successor - to the extent that the bureaucracy had to leak to the press, in the closing weeks of the election campaign, their fears of a red victory. However, those wholesale attacks no doubt played a major role in the achievement by the organised left of a long-elusive objective. This time there were still two left candidates - Malkiat Bilku was backed by the Workers Revolutionary Party (News Line) rump - but, thankfully, the SWP declined to run a propaganda candidate for their organisation, and instead supported and worked for Bannister. In a gratifyingly non-sectarian report on the election campaign, Socialist Worker correctly concludes that, "The result should give encouragement to all activists and socialists in the union" (March 4).

The report penned by Bill Mullins in SPEW's The Socialist, whilst hailing "a significant advance for the left in the union since the last election in 1995", cannot resist making a proprietorial assertion: "It is only the opposition of the left, organised around the CFDU and the Socialist Party, which has enabled the beginnings of a fightback against Labour's pro-big business policies in the public sector" (March 3). Comrade Mullins plays up the role of SPEW and declines to comment of the significance of the relative unity of the left.

Elsewhere in the same issue of The Socialist, however, within a "Statement by the Socialist Party" on the London assembly elections, titled 'A real test for left unity', appears a more direct attack on the SWP's role in the Unison campaign: "In the trade unions, the SWP's approach is inconsistent. The SWP have always worked outside of, or even against, broad left formations. In the 1995 Unison general secretary elections, the SWP stood against the left candidate. In the current Unison elections, fearing a drubbing, the SWP were compelled to back Roger Bannister. Many rank and file SWP members worked in Roger's campaign. But in typical SWP fashion, they set up campaign committees separate from the official CFDU campaign. After an initial flurry, the SWP leadership's attitude has been lukewarm".

This is petulant nonsense, coming from frightened sectarians. All of us on the left have experienced difficulties in working with the SWP. They have been the largest left grouping in Britain for the past decade and its leadership's undoubted arrogance has often intensified the problems caused by the more fundamental political failings. But, whatever the subjective motivation behind deciding to back Roger Bannister and to lay aside its own banner in the Unison election, objectively the SWP is being impelled towards socialist unity. It is a process that non-sectarians in the working class movement will embrace and will work to deepen, without for one moment eschewing genuine Marxist political criticism of opponents - ie, criticism directed from the standpoint of the needs of our class. As to the gripe about separate campaign committees, well, when it suits their partial interests, the Trotskyists of SPEW are all too ready to forget their Trotsky. What was that he said about the achievements possible from marching separately but striking together?

In the unions, as in the London GLA elections, there is a mood of passive rebellion growing in the working class. In the united left campaign in the Unison election, as in the single London Socialist Alliance slate, there is the opportunity for the class conscious element to solidify and make active that mood. We in the CPGB will not hide our intentions to win the political leadership of this nascent movement. But we will not employ sectarian methods in that struggle.

Derek Hunter

Election results

February 2000
Prentis (bureaucracy) 125,584 (55.9%)
Bannister (CFDU/SPEW) 71,021 (31.65%)
Bilku (Hillingdon Hospital striker) 27,785 (12.3%)
Turnout: 16.5%

November 1995
Bickerstaffe (bureaucracy) 151,893 (47.7%)
Hunter (rightwing, anti-abortion) 93,402 (29.3%)
Bannister (CFDU/SPEW) 58,052 (18.2%)
Bakhsh (SWP) 15,139 (4.8%)
Turnout: 23%