Busy times for UNISON must produce a positive message

Talking shortly before the vote of confidence in Boris Johnson was announced, UNISON president Paul Holmes outlined his hopes for the union’s national conference next week and the cost of living national demonstration on 18 June

Paul Holmes with placard for TUC demo

For Paul Holmes, UNISON president, this month offers real opportunities for the union to take centre stage in the fight against a Conservative government that is presiding over so much misery.

First, the union’s national delegate conference (NDC) takes place in Brighton next week, followed immediately, on 18 June, by the TUC national demonstration in London, which will see marchers from across the British union movement come together to call for a new deal for workers.

Of NDC, he describes it as “the most important conference for a bit” and says that his hopes for it are “positive”.

Expanding, Paul notes: “We haven’t had one [a conference] for a couple of years and, whereas meeting virtually has its advantages, conferences aren’t one of them.

“It’s obvious what’s going to happen over the next six months, with the cost of living crisis, and I think it’s going to be a really, really interesting conference. And I think it’s important that we leave it with a positive message.”

What would he like that message to be?

“That we’re going to recruit members and we’re going to link up with other unions,” he says simply.

Tackling the cost of living crisis

Given that conference will be dominated by that cost of living crisis – and that the TUC demo has been called because of it – what needs to happen to tackle that?

“Big Bill Haywood, who was an American trade unionist in the 1920s, a miners’ leader, said that everybody that’s got a dollar that they didn’t earn, somebody who did earn it didn’t get it.

“And that’s what I’d like to see happen; that the money that’s being earned goes to those who are earning it.

“What we’ve seen, particularly since the COVID crisis, is money flowing all over the place; to people who know people in the government, but not to our members who saw us through the crisis.”

Paul says that to achieve that, decent pay rises need to be financed and work needs to be brought back in house in public services. He also mentions a windfall tax on energy – and goes on to comment on the announcement of exactly that, just two days earlier, from Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

“I think it’s interesting – I don’t know if this is true or not – that the Financial Times said this morning that the windfall tax they’ve done this week is twice what Labour was proposing. Labour’s proposals were going to cost about two and a quarter billion and this’ll cost five.”

He doesn’t think it was any “coincidence” that the announcement of a windfall tax and extra help for struggling households came the day after Sue Gray’s report into lockdown parties in Downing Street shone a light on a sordid, boozy, rule-breaking culture.

“They’re in big trouble; they know they’re in big trouble,” he says of the Conservatives. “The May election results were poor for them – I think the by-election results will be even poorer, particularly for the reasons that the seats have been vacated.”

At the time of writing, Boris Johnson was clinging on to No10 by his fingertips, amid reports that he is desperately ringing around, offering peerages and the like to MPs if they continue to back him. The by-elections that Paul refers to are scheduled to take place on 23 June in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, and Wakefield in West Yorkshire.

The former was triggered by Tory MP Neil Parish being found to have watched porn while in the House of Commons, and in the latter, by the conviction in April for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy of his fellow Tory MP, Imran Ahmed Khan.

Paul makes no predictions on who will win those seats, only that the Conservatives will struggle to retain them.

‘Everybody hates the Tories’

“I think the political situation at the moment is … everybody hates the Tories, but they’re not sure who they like.

“In the poorest ward in Leeds, which is called Middleton Park, the SDP [Social Democratic Party] made a gain in the local elections – it’s their first gain for 34 years. It just shows you that people are fed up with everything.”

Looking at the wider political landscape, it’s clear that the country’s growing economic woes are also linked to Brexit. 

“I always thought that Brexit was a Tory argument,” Pauls says, before observing that, of the 54 seats that Labour lost in the 2019 general election, 52 had voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. This, he maintains, shows that there’s “no doubt whatsoever, that this ‘red wall’s’ just made up”.

As an example, he cites Wakefield, where he himself has lived for over 50 years and where the Tories “gained 300 votes” in the 2019 general election. “It’s not a massive amount of votes, but Labour lost 5,000, and Wakefield voted 60% leave.

“I thought the Brexit vote was just a diversion in the Tory party, but whether you voted remain or leave, I think a lot of people at the top of the labour movement hadn’t appreciated how fed up people are,” he concludes.

Again on the general political context, he explains that he doesn’t drive. “This might seem ridiculous, but I have a lot more conversations with people than people who drive … when you’re on public transport, you see people on the bus, at the bus stop, cafes and all that – and people are steaming, they’re absolutely steaming.

“I heard two women talking at a bus stop the other day, both in their eighties, and one was saying, about Johnson: ‘If I could get me ’ands on ’im … if I could just get me ’ands on ’im!’

“And this other woman said: ‘Well call a cheese and wine evening and then ’e might turn up!’

“And you wouldn’t normally get those conversations – general political conversations are not always there in those situations.”

But he’s clear too that it’s not just older people who are fed up: “young people are absolutely fuming” too.

“We’ve a chance on 18 June to tap into something, make it a launchpad. I really hope that people are angry. I don’t want a carnival atmosphere. I want us to express how much it’s hurting,” he says.


He talks about what the cost of living crisis means in reality, citing a woman from Wakefield who, when interviewed on television said: “It’s 30 pence for a bath and nine pence for a cup of coffee if you put the kettle on”.

“And people are down to that,” he says. “Nobody would have thought, 20 years ago, how much a bath or putting a kettle on would cost. It was just heartbreaking.”

He talks too of an acquaintance in Wakefield whose water is not metered. When he’s away from his home, neighbours take their watering cans to fill up from his garden tap.

So what can UNISON do?

“The role is to provide leadership,” he says. “That’s a very trite thing to say, but one of my favourite quotes … I think it was Napoleon … is: ‘The first step to winning is convincing your troops that you can win’.

“I’m used to winning. I’m in a branch with 10,000 members. I’ve done 200 gross misconduct disciplinaries and never had a dismissal. I’ve had one compulsory redundancy in the council in the last 33 years. So I’m used to organising to win.”

At a meeting that morning with Yorkshire bin workers, he says that all they had wanted to talk about was pay. “That was interesting, because they were saying the sort of things that I wanted to hear, which was: ‘How did we get a 14% turnout? We need to get posters out, we need to make it serious’.

“I’ve never heard that before. The usual attitude is: ‘I’m not going out on a one-day strike, because you lose more money than you gain’. But that’s not their attitude now.

“So my positive message is: I think it’s percolating though and we need to get a new generation active, because young people are really, really suffering.”

Roll on conference and the TUC march.