For the first time in its history, members of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) – the largest public sector union here – have elected Broad Left endorsed candidate, Carmel Gates, as General Secretary, winning 44% of the vote. This is positive, particularly given the right-wing challenge from Paul Turner, which risked setting the union back. 

It is imperative, this position should now be used to provide a combative lead on the many issues facing NIPSA members and public sector workers in general. These include further attacks on pay, terms and conditions, deepening economic uncertainty and rising sectarian tensions. We need a clear break with the status quo which has prevailed in the union, and its transformation into a fighting and democratic organisation, genuinely controlled by the members. Socialist Party activists in NIPSA will support any steps in that direction, as well as highlight and oppose any steps away from it. In that regard, it is necessary to soberly assess the recent election.

One worrying feature of the election was the low turnout. At 12.2%, less than half the number of members participated compared to the previous General Secretary election in 2015. Then, the Broad Left candidate – the runner-up – also received 44% of the vote. However, he received more votes than all the candidates put together this time. While Covid and home-working are factors, they do not fully explain the extent of this decline. It follows a trend of declining turnouts in all recent elections within NIPSA. This is a reflection of an understandable sentiment among many that these elections are not relevant to them. Reversing this trend is an essential part of transforming NIPSA in a positive direction.

Socialist Party activists in NIPSA issued a statement in the course of the campaign which warned against the dangers of the right-wing candidate, Paul Turner. We argued that Carmel Gates was best placed to defeat him, while at the same time making criticisms of the political weaknesses we saw in this campaign. We welcome the fact that, after this statement was released, there was a marked improvement in the political content of Carmel Gates’ campaign. There was an explanation of the need for socialist policies not present in earlier material, something we feel urgently needs to be argued by the union – not in an abstract or tokenistic form, but in a concrete and consistent manner, linked to the real issues NIPSA members and working-class people in general face.

Our statement highlighted the crucial need to challenge the development of a two-tier workforce in the public sector. Carmel Gates has committed to “reinvigorate a recruitment drive in all areas, including among agency staff and those in other forms of precarious employment” and to campaign to ensure “insecure forms of employment are brought to an end across the public sector.” This is a welcome shift from an approach of many which emphasise the ‘complications’ of a serious campaign of NIPSA recruiting agency workers. We believe this is a key priority, central to the future of the union. Activists should ensure this is implemented urgently, with in-person and online recruitment drives taking place, which is seriously staffed with organisers focused on this task. It also means urgently ensuring the digital infrastructure is fit for purpose. It is striking, for example, that it is still not possible to join NIPSA online almost one year and a half into the pandemic.

Left activists in the union must offer a concrete programme to change NIPSA for the better and, most importantly, to deliver improvements in the living standards of members. That means articulating a fighting strategy on industrial issues which can win victories on pay, terms and conditions, while also campaigning for democratic change in the union, such as key officials being elected and living on a worker’s wage. When the Broad Left holds positions of influence, it must then be seen to deliver on that programme. Otherwise, experience shows that the conservative and right-wing forces in the union can capitalise upon members’ disillusionment with the status quo.

While the election as General Secretary of someone with a record on the left is important and potentially a useful building block, left activists winning positions in the union’s apparatus and structures is not enough to effect the change we need in the union. That will require the building of a strong workplace activist layer in the union, which can hold officials to account and take independent action when necessary. Socialist Party members in NIPSA will continue to fight and discuss alongside other activists to make that happen.

By Socialist Party members in NIPSA