The Certification Officer – an unelected official created by the Thatcher government for the purpose of undermining trade union democratic procedures – has ordered a by-election for one of the Scottish territorial seats on the Unite Executive Council (EC).
The seat had been held by Davy Brockett, elected to the Executive Council in April of 2014 for a three-year period. Five months after his election fellow-EC-member Agnes Tolmie formally questioned Davy’s eligibility to hold the seat.
(In the 2010 Unite General Secretary election Tolmie had backed right-wing candidate Les Bayliss, standing on a platform of class collaboration, craft chauvinism, union centralisation, and public denunciations of striking workers.
After Bayliss lost, Tolmie joined the United Left grouping in Unite. She was elected to the union’s EC in 2014 on the United Left slate. Earlier this year she again parted company with the United Left.)
In response to Tolmie’s challenge to Davy’s eligibility, the different factions represented on the Unite EC, along with members of no factions, joined together to support Davy. In December of 2014 the EC unanimously backed Davy’s right to sit on the EC.
To hold a seat on the Unite EC a member must be what is called “Rule 6 compliant”. But, under the Unite Rulebook, the EC is empowered to waive the normal criteria of “Rule 6 compliance” where a member, like Davy, has been victimised and blacklisted.
The EC is empowered to do so because employers – by sacking and blacklisting union activists – would otherwise be able to exercise control over the composition of the union’s EC.
One out of Unite’s 1.4 million members was not prepared to accept the unanimous decision of the highest decision-making lay body of the union and lodged a complaint with the Certification Officer in April of 2015.
The complainant was Ian Murray, Agnes Tolmie’s husband. (Normally one would not define a union activist – or anti-union activist – in terms of their marital relationship. Not to do so in this case would be crass negligence.)
Astonishingly, despite the unanimous support for Davy by the EC, Unite officials chose not to defend that decision and not to contest Ian Murray’s complaint.
In June, Unite – probably in the form of Len McCluskey’s Chief of Staff Andrew (not to be confused with Tolmie’s husband Ian) Murray – wrote twice to the Certification Officer “acknowledging” (sic) and “conceding” (sic) that Davy was not eligible to sit on the EC.
This left the Certification Officer with no option but to uphold the complaint by one lone member against a unanimous decision of the union’s EC. As the Certification Officer wrote in his decision:
“The Union having conceded [Davy’s ineligibility], I so declare. This decision is reached on the basis of the Union’s concession without having heard detailed argument on the correct interpretation of the relevant rules.”
In fact, the Certification Officer went out of his way to stress that his decision, based on the absence of any arguments from Unite, was not to be taken as setting a precedent:
“Should the meaning of those rules be a matter of dispute in any future case, the present decision should not be regarded as providing any authoritative guidance on their interpretation or application.”
By way of remedy, Ian (not Andrew) Murray proposed that the unsuccessful candidate in the 2014 elections should simply take over Davy’s seat. According to Murray, this would “save the division and rancour that there would be should Mr. Brockett wish to stand again.”
In the event, the Certification Officer rejected Murray’s proposal and ordered a by-election be held, with the result announced no later than late January 2016.
Davy is rightly contesting that by-election. And he is doing so not just on the basis of his past record of standing up for members’ concerns but also in order to defend lay-membership democracy.
As Davy’s appeal for nominations puts it:
“At its December 2014 meeting our Executive Council unanimously expressed its support and confidence in me. But this decision was overturned by the Certification Officer.
I am therefore standing in this by-election to uphold the principles of lay democracy, and to send out a strong message that our union should be run by the membership, not unelected officials.”
Questions certainly need to be asked about the failure of Unite officials to defend the unanimous EC decision to back Davy – and their failure to inform the EC about this.
EC members learnt that Unite officials had not defended the EC decision only when the Certification Officer’s decision was published in October. They had not been informed of this at any of the EC meetings held after the complaint had been lodged.
But right now the priority for Unite branches in Scotland is to nominate Davy for the vacant seat on the EC, and to encourage their members to vote for him when the ballot papers go out.
With the election taking place over the Christmas/New Year break, every nomination and every vote could be vital.