IN THE SPACE of a few August days the general secretaries of three large Labour affiliated unions, Tim Roache of the GMB, Paddy Lillis of USDAW and, most significantly, Unison’s Dave Prentis, all dispensed public advice to Labour’s national executive, effectively telling it to adopt without amendment both the definition and examples of antisemitism prescribed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Unite’s Len McCluskey, though striking a different tone, followed suit the next week.
A charitable, if naïve, interpretation might see their interventions as designed to defuse a destructive row and enable a unified party to renew the fightback against a hugely vulnerable Tory government. Of course, the past three years have made it plain that much of the Parliamentary Labour Party is determined to undermine and ultimately ditch the Corbyn leadership, with ‘antisemitism’ a convenient line of attack.
Statements from the union secretaries came after most had maintained silence amidst a sustained media barrage against the party and the highly personalised vilification of Jeremy Corbyn as an ‘antisemite’. Though Corbyn has retained widespread backing among union activists, few would have expected Roache, Lillis or Prentis to rally to Jeremy’s aid.
After all, USDAW’s leadership has long been a bulwark of Labour’s ‘old right’, while Roache, elected in a ballot that saw only 4.4% of GMB members take part, has been tepid in his support for the Corbyn leadership. While the case of Prentis is not altogether surprising, it remains the most disturbing, not least because of Unison’s historic identification with the Palestinian cause and, in particular, its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Obviously, Prentis and the others are entitled to express their personal views regarding the IHRA document. As union general secretaries they have privileged access to media platforms, though there was no indication that Prentis had written his New Statesman article in a personal capacity. Unusually for an article from the general secretary, the text has thus far not appeared on Unison’s website and there has been no official response for requests from lay officers of the union for an explanation.
While Prentis was quick to assert his credentials as a critic of Israeli action and champion of Palestinian rights, he simply ignored the fact that his own union’s longstanding support for BDS might well be branded ‘antisemitic’ in the context of the full IHRA definition. That definition was apparently embraced at a meeting of the union’s Labour Link Committee this spring, which took place several weeks before the Labour NEC’s adoption of a code of conduct that didn’t incorporate some of the IHRA guidelines.
Since 2012 Unison conferences have repeatedly and overwhelmingly confirmed the union’s support for BDS, with the National Executive Council explicitly backing an end to ties with the Zionist union federation, Histadrut. As documented in a recent Guardian article, opponents of BDS in the US have seized on the IHRA examples at least twice on university campuses to block discussion of BDS, while closer to home the full IHRA document has been used against BDS campaigners at the University of Central Lancashire and more recently by Barnet council, the Tory-run London borough.
Having adopted the full IHRA document in early 2017, a Barnet council meeting at the end of July passed a motion calling on Barnet’s officers to examine the legality of implementing a policy whereby Barnet does “not provide any space or areas for clubs, organisations or even individuals who support the activities of the antisemitic [sic] BDS movement.” In principle, then, there is a very real possibility that the council could deny all facilities to the local Unison branch, which has proved troublesome both to Barnet’s Tories and the Prentis leadership of Unison. The Barnet branch has waited weeks for advice from the union, but thus far none has been forthcoming.
We can speculate about the actual motives for union leaders’ August interventions, but the interviews and especially the Prentis article pose major questions about the accountability of general secretaries and the sincerity of any paper commitment to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP