“It’s up to the Labour Party to recruit Labour members” – LabourList interviews Unison’s Dave Prentis


Dave Prentis has been General Secretary of Britain’s second largest union, Unison, for over twelve years, leading over 1.3 million members. In an exclusive interview with LabourList, he tells Mark Ferguson that it’s highly unlikely that his union will be changing its rules and relationship with Labour to conform with some of Ed Miliband’s party reform proposals.

I met the General Secretary for Unison Dave Prentis last week in the trade unions new HQ in Euston. It’s incredibly light in there like sitting outdoors, only indoors and the building combines old brick buildings with a new glass and steel structure. Old meets new – there’s probably a metaphor for modern trade unionism there if you wanted to force it.

I was keen to hear about Unison’s work on zero hours contracts, something that Labour has since moved on, and the trade unions relationship with the Labour Party after Ed Miliband recently committed to reviewing Labour’s union links. Ahead of TUC conference this week, we had plenty to talk about.

Unison is fighting hard to tackle zero hours contracts a task which Prentis believes is made harder by the Coalition government:

“We’ve got the Coalition which is taking away the employment rights of millions of workers, taking away their legal rights and access to tribunals, access to fairness.”

Workers trapped on zero hours contracts are among the worst affected by a lack of employment rights. Prentis says they are placed in a position of complete weakness. They cant complain, because if they do complain they get no pay. Many staff on zero hours contracts struggle to rent because they can’t prove how much they earn, and getting a mortgage is a non-starter.

Facing these kinds of working conditions, it’s not surprising that Prentis – and his members – want to see an alternative from Labour. For people to be treated fairly at work, with decent pay, for a comprehensive roll out of the living wage and for measures to address the affordable housing crisis:

“They will not vote for a party that says we want one more year of the Tory pay freeze. They will not vote for a party that says we want the same austerity restrictions for a year, that the coalition have implemented over the previous five years. They need a vision, and it’s got to include the big issues, such as ensuring that pay keeps up with the cost of living. We need to put our  public services on a sound footing for dealing with the big challenges we face as a society, such as  caring for the ageing population.”

Workers in the caring services (most of whom are women) get a particularly raw deal when it comes to zero hours contracts. Prentis tells me that carers are not paid for travelling time between those they look after and often only given 15 minutes with each person even without zero hours contracts, Prentis says they’re being paid well below the minimum wage. He’s keen to praise  a lot of good work on trying to integrate social care and the NHS. But Prentis wants to hear more than that:

“We’ve got to have a Labour Party that says, ‘we will repeal the Health and Social Care Act’. We’ve got to stop the NHS being taken over by private companies who will not provide the comprehensive service that Labour believes in. It’s not just coming out with pleasant words, we want, in the manifesto and beforehand, a clear commitment not just to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, but replacement objectives. We want to know what the Health Service will look like, what the Care service will look like not just platitudes. There is a big difference between us at the moment. They’re not coming out with those firm commitments.”

In our discussion of the week’s hot topics, Prentis doesn’t let Ed Miliband off lightly. He evidently believes that the buck stops at the top, saying whilst Ed Miliband is the leader of the opposition: you don’t see that much clear opposition at the moment that will ensure people want to get out there and vote Labour. But when we start talking about Syria, Prentis is much happier to sing Miliband’s praises:

“On Syria, the Labour Party was completely in touch with the country. There’s been some fallout over the last days about the vote in the House of Commons. But the real issue isn’t what the Labour Party did. The Tories seem to be having a field day blaming the Labour party and Ed Miliband. The reason the Conservatives did not get their motion through is because 30 Tory MPs and 9 Lib Dems did not go along with their leaders. Ed should be saying this, not just sitting back and taking the blows.”

Yet if Miliband’s leadership looked to have received a boost from the Syria vote, it certainly didn’t last and the row over party/union reform has now become something of a make-or-break issue for the Labour leader.

Unison uses a unique funding structure to support the Labour Party: there’s a political fund which is divided into two parts, one for Labour Party activity, the other for general political campaigning. This structure has often been used as an example of how Labour’s relationship with trade unions might work. Yet Prentis says:

“The biggest irony is that in everything that’s happened, it’s probably Unison that’s least likely to change its own arrangements.  Our members have a clear choice about being in the union’s affiliated section or not. And these arrangements have been approved several times over recent years by our members. This is a diversion from the big issues they want us talking about.”

That’s not surprising when you consider the reality of the environment trade unions are operating in. First and foremost they are industrial organisations, not political ones. In the past few years Unison have seen 400,000 public sector workers  lose their jobs but the union has stayed pretty much the same size due to a constant and growing recruitment and organisation drive with  120 additional organisers being hired by the union to work on the ground. Unsurprisingly, Prentis isnt willing to jeopardise that recruitment by putting another hurdle Labour membership in the way of becoming a union member:

“We will not put an additional burden on people joining the union. We’re organising a national recruitment campaign in October[] We are not putting more on our application form saying ‘do you want to be an associate member of the Labour Party?’. It’s up to the Labour Party to recruit Labour members[]We have an affiliated fund, which our members know is used for Unison to work and campaign within the Labour party We already encourage those members to think about joining the Party and have their say but it’s up to Labour to convince them it’s a step worth taking.”

Prentis says there was no proper consultation, and no discussion from Ed Miliband before he made his speech announcing widespread reforms to the Labour/union link, but the two did speak on the phone before the speech.   Nor do the logistics of what Miliband is proposing work as far as Unison is concerned. Prentis says the union is governed by the Data Protection Act and  can’t hand over members’ details to the Labour Party as it’s an outside body. It’s clear that Prentis is frustrated that the proposed reforms are a distraction from the real issues that are impacting upon the party’s potential supporters:

“And now we’ve got a special conference early next year.  What most people will really want to know is what are you going to do about the pay freeze we’ve had for five years, about building a million houses, what are you going to do about getting nearly one million young unemployed people into work. They want to know what Labour’s going to do about fairness within the economy and about the health service. They do not want to know about union – party relations.  This isn’t a priority for ordinary people.”

This sense of frustration is something that many of us share. The valuable work that labour and the unions can do together – on issues like the living wage and zero hours contracts – can improve working peoples lives for years to come. But first – both sides will need to work together to find a solution on party reform.

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