What trade unions can learn from Johanna Baxter


Slates are for making roofs with – or chalk boards.

This post sort of follows on from my thoughts about decentralised trade unions.

During my trade union days with the PCS Union, I’d receive a huge package annual to vote for who should be on the National Executive Committee. It cost the union a small fortune to administer all of this. Despite the cost and effort, turnout was inevitably very small. As a result, the candidates that were on the ‘slates’ of established factions within the union were the ones that came out the strongest. Accordingly, in the brief descriptions of each candidate there would be a number saying “I am on this slate, and in your votes please vote for this person for president, someone else for vice president and this other lot for your remaining votes.” (You had something like ten or so preferences out of a list of dozens for the NEC).

Accordingly, I could not really make much of a judgement on what people were like individually. So I did the politically incorrect thing of thinking: “Which of this lot are most likely to have an impact on diversifying the union?” I did not have nearly enough information on whether I thought someone would be a sound candidate or not. It was very much “Did I like the look of them?”

With such a low turnout, it is very easy for well-organised factions to take control. The PCS Union has three main ones. PCS Democrats – centre-left, the ‘moderates’ and the hard left PCS Left Unity. Most of the people I met with during my union days were in the last of the three, and at the time thought little of it. Given the turnout for the elections, it seemed like the same was the case for many members – the internal politics of trade unions can be a life-draining business at the best of times. (The best bits for me were the member-facing bits and some of the activism – the outward-facing work, and the feeling of being part of a wider ‘family’ of the trade union movement).

The historical bad blood within the union was something I first stumbled across during my university days. Being a volunteer at the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre put me in touch with what was going on within a number of trade unions, but not having been brought up with a strong trade union mindset I couldn’t really see how it impacted me or on why it mattered – even though for some activists at the time it really did matter. (Details of the 2002 rumpus can be found here.)

I never joined any of the factions as a member or an elected rep. I just wanted to make a difference. Hence why I left the hard-core activists to get on with whatever was going on internally. The conundrum facing unions – and political parties – is how to engage with your wider membership. Apathy helps no one and leads to a crisis of legitimacy. Yet if decision-making processes are dominated by small top-down factions, is it any wonder why people refrain from getting involved? Are trade unions and their linked organisations condemned to an existence controlled by a small group of well-organised people in a sea of wider apathy?

Well…going by the experience of Johanna Baxter of Labour’s NEC, not necessarily. It stems from a post by ex-Labour minister Jim now Lord Knight. He begins:

“Let’s be honest, two years ago how many of us could name more than about three members of the Labour Party’s most important body?”

Knight is talking about Labour’s National Executive Committee – but that same comment could be made of any trade union with a similar committee. How many members could name a few members on their union’s NEC – a union to which they pay monthly membership fees?

“Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) nominated according to adherence to the “Grassroots Alliance” or “Progress” slates and votes followed the same trend – our CLP representatives became a mixture of the two wings of the party, candidates hand-picked by the unelected leaders of these well resources groups.”

Does the picture feel similar to those of you in trade unions? Perhaps it’s the structure of unions that has incentivised people to get together into ‘slates’ and co-ordinate themselves in a manner so that upon gaining control they can carry out whatever it is their policies are. But what is the impact of this? For a start, it crushes any independent thought. Getting selected for a slate means demonstrating that you are in agreement with whoever happens to be at the top of the tree. We see this in our national politics in Parliament. Look at the MPs that ask all the toady questions (on all sides of the House in recent times). “Does the Prime Minister agree with me that our party is absolutely fantastic and would he like to list all the great things his Government is doing for the people in my constituency?”

So along came Johanna Baxter who decided to stand for Labour’s NEC.

“Johanna Baxter stood as an independent candidate promising to put members first…Everyone told her that she would lose because she wasn’t part of a slate. That didn’t put her off. At that point she had also never met anyone on the NEC. She fundamentally felt that members simply weren’t being listened to at the heart of our party and wanted to do something about it.”

Although Johanna narrowly missed out in the vote – coming ‘best loser’, she made it onto the NEC when one of the existing members was elevated to the House of Lords. Knight attributes Johanna’s success on her use of social media both prior to and on her time on the NEC. In particular he noted Johanna’s use of social media to get around seemingly arcane rules about sending emails to secretaries of CLPs. Why worry about emails to other parts of the party hierarchy when you can engage with members directly?

“Johanna has used this feedback to inform the big decisions in front of the committee, she’s educated others in how to engage members through the use of social media and her constant source of energy has inspired more activity across the whole of the CLP section of the NEC.

It is testament to that work that more CLPs than ever made nominations for the NEC this year and more of those nominations are for independent candidates who would work hard for members.”

The most important aspect here is listening. The tendency of large organisations is to use social media as an additional outlet for traditional press releases. People don’t want that anymore. They treat such stuff like spam: It gets ignored. People want to engage – have a conversation, a debate, and a feeling that they are able to influence things. That’s one of the things I love about crowd-sourcing. Whether it’s “I have a problem with X – can anyone help?” or whether it’s my local MP saying “I’m in Transport Questions – does anyone have suggestions for anything I need to raise?” This by the sounds of things is what Johanna has done.

Not only that, she’s used social media to connect with people in real life.

“But what is distinctive and truly remarkable is that her engagement with the party has taken her to 73 CLPs in all corners of the country over the last 16 months. Self-funded (the party doesn’t pay a penny in expenses for this work) and combined with a full time day job this is a remarkable achievement – especially as she is a CLP Secretary herself.”

One of the great things about digital and social media is that you can get to know people really well before you’ve actually met them. Chances are this was the case with Johanna – getting to know a handful of activists in different CLPs before heading out to visit, to find a very warm welcome. By having other people to vouch for her through social media connections and then meeting even more, it’s not surprising that people turned towards her as being more… ‘genuine’ than someone who had been through the grinding machine that produces identikit candidates.

This aspect is also a reflection of my experience on social media. The fluid nature of Twitter has meant that I have been able to filter lots of great people into my life – something I describe in detail in Building Social Media Communities. Chances are Johanna has been able to do the same. From a campaigning perspective where she’s asking for people’s votes, she’s more likely to get more people voting for her having made that personal connection with people and being open to thoughts and feedback from people through social media. It sounds obvious to say this, but by investing time to listen and engage with people, they are more likely to return that favour. Social media makes that job of listening and engaging to lots of people a damn sight easier.

Just to add, I randomly stumbled across the blogpost via a retweet on Twitter. Another thing to love about social media. Random nuggets of information gold can come from out of the blue!


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