President urges UNISON activists to take up election challenge

Josie Bird tells disabled members’ conference that the general election is ‘not a challenge we can afford to shirk’

“We are going to need every bit of your campaigning abilities,” UNISON president Josie Bird told the union’s disabled members’ conference in Brighton this morning, responding to last week’s announcement of a December general election.

With a prime minister “who does not respect democracy” and has even lied to the Queen, she said it would “be laughable if it were not so serious. It’s no way to run a country”.

But “now we have a chance to change all that” – 12 December will be “the most important election in a generation” and the country needs a government that will “heal the divisions,” end austerity and “bring down the curtain on Tory misrule”.

Describing herself as a believer in human rights, social justice and internationalism, and moulded by growing up in the years when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and the miners in her north east home were on strike, Ms Bird said that we “all have to stand and challenge the politics of hate.”

While noting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has no interest in working people and remains determined to push through the hard Brexit that his backers want, she stressed that activists must ensure that Brexit is not the only issue being discussed and that “jobs and living standards” are key aspects of the election campaign.

Public services also need to be at the heart of what UNISON activists say in the coming weeks.

“A quarter of local authority jobs have been lost since 2010,” she observed, adding that “a million public service workers are still paid below the living wage [and] the gender pay gap actually widened over the last 12 months.”

In the fifth richest country in the world, austerity and poverty were shortening lives.

Activists need to encourage “everyone” to vote.

They might hear that “voters are disillusioned by politics” and things could get worse, “but crucially, it can also get better” … “we need to give people the confidence to believe”.

The picture is not simplistically bleak though, as UNISON victories – in the courts and on the ground – continue to show, while the union itself also continues to grow.

It is a busy time for everyone in the union, but as Ms Bird said, the forthcoming election is “not a challenge we can afford to shirk”.