Two vie to replace Prentis

n the next few months Unison members face a series of important ballots: the election of a new general secretary and national executive committee; and a statutory ballot for the continuation of the union's political fund. There is also currently a consultative ballot on strike action to defend pensions. Who leads the union in this period, and in the run-up to a general election, is a matter of great importance - not only to the members of the largest union in the country, but also to workers generally. Dave Prentis, the incumbent general secretary, is a career bureaucrat. He has been quite adept at using left rhetoric, only to follow through with a rotten compromise with New Labour. One of the so-called 'awkward squad', he has been a restraining influence on what was already a self-demotivating group. Before the 2004 TUC conference he talked tough but then, against his own union's policy, saved Blair any embarrassment over Iraq. He pays a high price for crumbs. The left are not at all happy with this type of leadership. Unfortunately, however, instead of a united left challenge we have two competing leftwingers: standing for Unison United Left (UUL) is Jon Rogers, Lambeth branch secretary, member of the Labour Party and the editorial board of Labour Left Briefing; and Roger Bannister, Knowsley branch secretary, who is the Socialist Party candidate. Both are current members of the NEC. The nature of the uphill battle faced by these two candidates can be seen from the respective nominations. Dave Prentis is nominated by the NEC, 524 branches, nine regional councils and seven service groups. Jon Rogers: 50 branches and one regional council. Roger Bannister: 30 branches. Not an impossible task, but certainly weakened by division. Both opposition candidates have put out decidedly leftwing election addresses and, unlike Dave Prentis, both have a record of standing by their principles and concretely backing various struggles. Both have merit. Roger Bannister has contested several times before - his highest vote a very respectable 31%. This is Jon Rogers' first attempt - prompted, he says, by Unison's Labour Party delegation selling out union policy over Iraq at the 2004 conference. Both are campaigning for a general secretary on a worker's wage and for a fighting union that supports workers' struggles for jobs and pay and against privatisation, war and racism. Roger Bannister might appear to be more strident in his opposition to New Labour (and less compromised through having no loyalty to the Labour Party) than Jon Rogers who, whilst scathing about Blair, has illusions in the nature of the party and the prospects for transforming it. However, there is more than appearance to be considered. The fundamental difference that lies at the heart of these separate left candidates is the attitude to the political fund and affiliation to the Labour Party. These in turn go to the heart of democratic accountability within the union. Roger Bannister's campaign is explicitly linked to disaffiliation from the Labour Party: "If members want to register a vote against the Labour Party or want to be balloted about continued affiliation, I'm the only candidate offering that alternative," he says. The Socialist Party pulled out of UUL last June. On the Socialist Party website Roger Bannister says: "I think it is disappointing that the left are divided in this election." How then does he justify the Socialist Party pullout? It seems that the main reason advanced was because UUL "was attempting to straddle the divide between anti-Labour Party and pro-Labour Party factions within it". Now, I think there are lots of problems with UUL, but the way in which the Socialist Party refracts its vision through a crude, superficial and plainly false dichotomy posed between pro- and anti-Labour factions is nothing more than an untheorised rationalisation of their flip from automatic support for Labour to automatic opposition. There is no nuanced and unity-building approach, no tactical agility, no deep analysis to help chart the way forward. Comrade Bannister argues that the fact that UUL "put Jon Rogers up as a candidate - one of the most clearly identified pro-Labour Party members in the United Left - shows how correct we were". No, it shows how sectarian you were. The simplistic 'pro-Labour' tag obscures the fact that there are genuine anti-Blairites within Labour who are prepared to work with others on the left. It also effectively partitions off all those ordinary workers who still have illusions in Labour. Endowed with his anti-Labour spectacles, comrade Bannister then goes on to predict: "On the issue of the Labour Party, [Jon Rogers] will be saying virtually the same things as the rightwing establishment candidate, Dave Prentis." Well, we always need to be on our guard about potential sell-out leaders - and there is the possibility of divided loyalties with Labour Party members. It will be up to UUL and the rank and file membership itself to hold Jon Rogers to account. For now all we can go on is his record and what he says today. He says he is a socialist and a Labour Party member - in that order. Under the slogan, "For a political voice, not a blank cheque for Labour", he continues his support for democratisation of the union's political fund - which would open the door to supporting other parties under the democratic control of members. He backs a public service strike in defence of pensions before the general election. He argues that Unison needs a leadership that "puts loyalty to union members and policy first, ahead of support for the New Labour government". Jon Rogers has thus far demonstrated in words and deeds that he is no Blairite lackey and that he is for a fighting democratic union. Roger Banister and Jon Rogers have more in common than the anti-Labour/pro-Labour yardstick suggests. There is more though. The 'right on' anti-Labour badge sported by the Socialist Party has the form of being for the workers - vehemently against everything associated with the Labour government's attacks on workers - and appeals, "Let the workers decide" (on disaffiliation), as comrade Bannister says. However, the political content beneath the posturing is weak and damaging. Disaffiliation without a realistic alternative built through a process of struggle - a struggle that has shattered illusions and cohered strength - can only lead to fragmentation and greater weakness. 'Letting workers decide' - not on the basis of understanding their long-term objective interests as a class, but instead by posing easy, simplistic and emotive appeals to their immediate subjective feelings - this is promoting a pub mentality. The Socialist Party's attitude to the political fund is particularly revealing. For over two years now it has campaigned within Unison not for democratisation of the fund and members' control - a real process of struggle that begins to pose the independent political voice of workers concretely. Instead it has campaigned for a third fund that can provide money for left candidates - we assume under the control of left union bureaucrats and not the members as a whole. This is sectionalism. This is to forgo the aim of an independent political voice for the whole class in favour of a short-term cash prop for a section of it. All things being equal, I would have voted for the Socialist Party candidate. The SP has a better record than most on producing tried and tested working class militants. However, Roger Bannister, who in many respects fits into that history, is seriously undermined by the Socialist Party's sectional attitude. On the decisive issues of an independent political voice for the class, rank and file democracy and working class unity, Jon Rogers is ahead of Roger Bannister. So my vote will go to comrade Rogers. Alan Stevens