Facts, figures and factions

In response to my article on the recent general secretary election in Unison ('Two vie to replace Prentis', March 3), the Weekly Worker has received an email from the Socialist Party's candidate, Roger Bannister (see Letters, p3). After listing the result (Prentis - 75%; Bannister - 16.5%; Rogers - 7.5%) he comments: "Speaks louder than the article!" - and that is all he says. Well, bare figures in themselves say nothing much at all - they have to be analysed and interpreted. Because comrade Bannister does not deign to give us his thoughts on any of the numerous political and tactical questions raised in the article, we have to guess what he might mean - which seems to amount to 'I got more votes than Jon Rogers, so there'. However, we get a better understanding of comrade Bannister's view on the election from his interview in The Socialist (March 12). This is headed up by the result, but also gives the turnout - only 16.6% of Unison's 1,476,488 members bothered to cast their ballot. He is not asked and does not comment on the implications of this significant figure. A staggering 83.4% of members did not vote! Factoring this into the figures, we arrive at a rather different picture of the actual support for each candidate: the overwhelming 75% victory for Prentis shrivels to a mere 12.5% of those entitled to vote, while comrade Bannister's "good result" comes in at 2.8% and comrade Rogers gets a 'disappointing' 1.24%. Despite increasing political disaffection of members and parallel ballots on strike action, a huge majority saw the election of general secretary as an irrelevance. This exposes the bankruptcy of the left's unhealthy concentration on winning union positions and gives some indication of just how few members are actively represented by their officials and delegates. This lack of democratic involvement and the separation between activists and the majority of members makes it almost impossible to counter the bureaucratic control of union tops like Prentis. Back to comrade Bannister. In the interview he makes a number of points about the tactics used by Prentis and the bureaucracy. Prentis, he says, had to present a left face and make anti-New Labour statements or he would have lost support - among those who mustered up sufficient interest to vote, that is. But then, as a sort of security blanket for the Socialist Party's anti-Labour stance, comrade Bannister argues that Prentis would not have got the same majority had he been "advocating support for a Labour government and therefore opposing anything that might have upset Labour's plans for the general election, including taking industrial action against the government". What we have here is a partial truth used as justification for the Socialist Party's preconceived perspective. Searching for the whole truth in order to arrive at a correct perspective is a better method. The whole point is that Prentis is very obviously doing a balancing act between outright support for Labour and posing left. He does this partly to undermine the left, and partly to win the ear of government in order to avoid industrial action and avoid damaging Labour's election prospects. He did not and does not simply pose as anti-New Labour. Comrade Bannister continues his theme by stating that the "Labour Party issue is partly reflected in the vote that Jon Rogers got for the United Left", because "The United Left have fudged the position on the Labour Party and will not call for disaffiliation from the Labour Party." He informs us that "Throughout the campaign, at every hustings, Jon Rogers told his audiences that he personally was a member of the Labour Party and advocated a sort of left reform within the Labour Party." Comrade Bannister concludes that this is "probably responsible for the relatively low vote that he got". Whilst I have no doubt that Jon Rogers' 'reclaim Labour' line would not have been well received by too many of the activists and the odd few ordinary members who might have attended the hustings, this is far from the whole story - and again represents an attempt at justification of the Socialist Party's own agenda. Let us pose the opposite argument. According to comrade Bannister's logic, his own strident opposition to Labour and calls for disaffiliation ought to have cornered the market. However, 17%, though rather better than comrade Rogers' 7.5%, is hardly earth-shattering and, as I have already pointed out, the real level of support for the two left candidates (2.8% and 1.24% respectively) is on the dismal side of pathetic. Not only this, but in objectively 'better' conditions the combined left vote was down on Bannister's result of 31% on an almost identical turnout last time. I do not know whether his result this time "speaks louder than the article", but to me it comes over as no more than a squeak in support of the Socialist Party's anti-Labour sectarianism - which is supposed to be in tune with not only the activists, but also the "overwhelming mood of members". The incumbent, Prentis, who comrade Bannister rightly says had the weight of the bureaucracy behind him and ran a less than squeaky-clean campaign, had a distinct advantage and his percentage vote increased. But what the figures really show is that when apathy rules, so does the bureaucracy. The key question that needs to be addressed is working class unity in action. This means that activists need to build real and active support amongst the mass of ordinary workers - a difficult task from our very low starting point. In practice the whole of the left concentrates on the less daunting aims of winning union positions and passing resolutions over the heads of most members. In the absence of an activated membership, all they aspire to is a left union bureaucracy that substitutes itself for rank and file mobilisation. The correct approach, aiming to empower workers, would pose the question of left unity - not as a nice idea, or a deal for union positions, but for the purpose of building working class unity around a strategy that is in the independent interests of the whole. In other words, it would pose questions of class interest, strategy, organisation and party as concrete tasks for ordinary workers. The Socialist Party parted company with Unison United Left last year, and so comrade Bannister stood without the support of a broad left this time. Scenting disarray within UUL, comrade Bannister tries to stir things up: "The independent lefts within the United Left will in particular have to rethink their existing strategy. This strategy seems to be that the most important thing is to keep organisations like the Socialist Workers Party on board. The fact that under their leadership the United Left has done so disappointingly is a message the independent lefts have to take very seriously." This fits a pattern we saw in the Socialist Alliance. A broad left dominated by the Socialist Party is joined (in a reorganised form) by the SWP, which then becomes the majority. The SWP's pandering to the right in pursuit of its sectional agenda interferes with the rival sectional agenda of the Socialist Party. The SP throws up its hands in feigned indignation and walks out. Then it calls for a replacement - one which it can dominate, or which will at least allow the SP to do its own thing unhindered. Left unity and working class unity come way down the list of priorities for both the SWP and SP. Yes, the SP does have a tendency to lay down ultimatums or pre-empt agreement by presenting a fait accompli. And, yes, the SWP and its supporters did cut the SP out of the divvy-up of union positions - or tried to. Difficult and frustrating it may be, but the fact is that the SWP is the biggest left organisation and cannot be ignored, dismissed or side-stepped - unless of course you are simply promoting your own interests as a distinct sect rather than trying to unite in action for the class. Comrade Bannister goes on: "We've always been in favour and I'm still in favour of a genuine, broad-based, non-sectarian left body to put up maximum opposition to the right wing and the bureaucracy and to argue for militant policies for trade unionists and left socialist policies within the union." He adds: "It is not the United Left - this election shows that." I agree it is not the United Left, which, like all the union broad lefts, sees the winning of positions in the bureaucracy as the main aim - it was exactly the same when the Socialist Party was on board. Neither will a new, SP-dominated broad left, set up as an alternative pole of attraction, change things. The history of such formations, with their sectional rivalry, carve-up of jobs and (eventually) incorporation into union bureaucracies is abysmal. We need something much better, much more ambitious. The general secretary contest is over: on to the NEC elections - for the SP and UUL. I am all for standing for union positions - so long as it is done as part of a strategy for winning workers to unity in action, not as an aim in itself. Unfortunately, recent events again show that, for the SP and SWP, getting into the bureaucracy is primary and the workers "¦ well, perhaps they will be inspired by new leaders - one day. Comrade Bannister says: "I'd like to start having discussions about where the left goes from here with other lefts of good faith and build on what's been achieved." Unfortunately this seems to be merely an appeal to win "other lefts" away from association with the SWP and to Socialist Party leadership on the basis of his own, marginally less meagre, slice of the vote. The SP seems to want to get back to being the majority in a broad left that does not include the SWP. There should indeed be "discussions". But wouldn't it be a good idea to overcome the infantile sect mentality that infects both these organisations and leaves the whole left impotent? Meanwhile workers themselves remain atomised, disenfranchised and defenceless. Alan Stevens