Paul Holmes wants to be Unison’s first general secretary elected from outside the union’s employed staff, on a salary of £32,000 – and to give the remaining £100,000 or so to good causes
Union and Labour activists have identified the retirement of controversial right-winger Dave Prentis as general secretary of the giant Unison union as a pivotal moment in the future direction of both the Labour movement and party.
Prentis’s re-election campaign team was slammed by a judge after the ‘Unisongate’ manipulation of the election was revealed by recordings – and the union boss not only gave jobs to two of the senior former Labour employees accused in the explosive leaked party report, but promised to protect them when the report leaked, to the fury of many Unison national executive and lay members.
Prentis’s decision to retire has opened up the possibility of renewal for a union that is the UK’s biggest but is often criticised by its members and activists for taking too right-wing a stance and a too-soft approach on industrial disputes – and along with that renewal, to balance the Labour Party after recent right-wing manoeuvres to stack the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).
But the hope of positive change has been tempered by the realisation that the right is well entrenched in the union’s structures – and the apparent absence of an obvious left candidate with both a realistic chance of success and the backbone to make a difference if elected.
However, a working-class candidate has entered the contest who threatens to upend expectations – and to shake both the union’s and the Labour Party’s political class to its foundations.
West Yorkshire-based Paul Holmes is a 40-year Unison and Labour Party member who has been Unison’s local government branch secretary in Kirklees for thirty years – and was elected to Unison’s NEC with the biggest vote in its last round of elections – and he is standing on a radical, working-class platform.
In an interview, Holmes told the SKWAWKBOX that he believes Unison has become far too corporate and he has intends to change that – including selling the union’s two large headquarters buildings, worth around £100 million, so the funds can be put to better use.
Holmes compared the newest building to the offices of a bank or building society, with few signs that it belongs to a union apart from the Unison logo on the outside and in the lobby, lacking any of the normal mementos of past struggles and working-class solidarity that would be expected in a union office. Holmes considers this a sign of Unison’s ‘business unionism’ and says he will end it
Holmes also pointed out that since its formation in 1993, every general secretary had been a full-time union employee and that it was time for a proper democratic separation between Unison’s bureaucracy and its leadership, with only elected officers deciding the union’s priorities and directions while employed officials carry them out.
To underline his determination to return Unison to its working-class roots, Holmes is making a commitment to do the job, if elected, on the same salary he currently earns as a local government organiser – £32,000.
Holmes also intends to:
- increase the share branches receive of their membership funds from 25% to 50%
- make Unison a ‘fighting union’, to ensure working people aren’t penalised by the government for the costs of the coronavirus crisis
- raise the general secretary profile to ensure the union punches its weight
Holmes’s politics and attitude to the role of unions are not a recent, nor adopted for the election – as videos of old speeches show:
It might be hard, in the current climate, to imagine a left-wing, working-class, grassroots candidate upsetting the right’s apple cart. But Holmes is popular. Unison members say he is highly regarded and that his speeches are among the most anticipated at the union’s conferences.
He has regularly topped the poll in the elections for Unison’s NEC during his 13 years serving on it. He is expected to achieve the required nominations required by Monday without difficulty and already has the support of a third of Unison NEC members.
With significant grassroots suppport, the usual low turnout in union elections and his plans to shake up the union and return it to its members, it’s a certainty that Unison’s right-wing establishment will pull out all the stops to block or disable Holmes’s campaign and protect their privilege.
But Holmes is also a threat to the Labour right with Unison, the Labour Party’s second-largest affiliate, able to wield significant influence on the party’s NEC – enough, if Unison and fellow giant Unite are run by solid working-class general secretaries, to overturn the right’s current dominance on the NEC. Labour’s right-wingers will certainly be giving every assistance possible to their fellow ideologues in the union.
But if Unison members want their union back and get behind the candidate whose track record shows he will give it to them, then the Unison general secretary election could be a game-changer not only for the union but for the whole Labour movement, including the party supposed to represent it.
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