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Kenny Bell: From loss to living legacy

Kenny Bell stood for a distinctive, strategic and effective kind of trade unionism writes Hilary Wainwright

August 28, 2011
17 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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The Latin American poet Pablo Neruda describes the moment that grief gives way to carrying the spirit of a compañero with us and making it our own.

From the moment Kenny knew that his cancer was terminal he left those with whom he worked in no doubt that our grief should be brief. There was too much ‘to get done’, as he would put it, to hang around being melancholic. But more than this – and he would be too modest to say it – Kenny set us an example of the imaginative and strategic kind of trade unionism that we urgently need to build today.

He expected us all to continue his work – in Neruda’s terms, to make part of his spirit our own. This was not for reasons of ego; that was not his character. The obligation he gave us came from his passionate belief in effective and strategic organisation to create a society beyond capitalism, combined with his equally strong belief in the collective intelligence and power of working people to create that alternative.

Instead of a traditional obituary, then, here is a first sketch of the kind of trade unionism which he was continually refining through practice and through a distinctively open and creative collaboration with others.

These others will I’m sure, contribute more.

Participatory, empowering organisation

Kenny’s starting point, and returning point, was the need constantly to build, renew and develop a strong and creative trade union in the workplace; an organisation able also to reach out to the city and fellow citizens, to be a strong base for a regional strategy and to be a resource for international solidarity.

For Kenny, a strong organisation required ways of organising through which individuals gain self-confidence, realise that they have a voice, grow their capacities and in turn contribute to the development of a dynamic collective power.

Education through action, through going in at the deep end with support and encouragement, was fundamental to Kenny’s approach. He was influenced by the Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire, especially Freire’s emphasis on education through empowerment: Kenny’s way of leading was always to share power, to encourage others, to help people realise capacities they doubted they had, and always to explain and debate policies so that everyone understood and could apply them creatively to their own circumstances.

Here he put especial emphasis on bringing on young activists, attending new stewards training sessions for example, and, by all accounts, inspiring in these young trade unionists the confidence to challenge the status quo.

Another important part of Kenny’s approach to collective power was his engagement with feminism. He interpreted feminism as both working for gender equality in the union and in the council, and giving especial support to women, and other marginalised social groups, and also as a rich source of new insights for creating an organisation that built the self-confidence of all, not just the already articulate and confident.

This kind of participatory, self-conscious organisation, with the will and the power to take collective action, was a foundation stone of his capacity to give effective leadership – as always with others – to politically ambitious strategies in the council, across the region, and sometimes on a national and international scale.

An example I witnessed first-hand was the resistance he led to BT’s bid to privatise the council’s back office between 2000-2002, followed by the central role the union took in guiding the implementation of a publicly-led process of effective reform, with considerable savings reallocated to frontline services and no redundancies. Throughout this difficult but effective transformation process, the council’s management knew that, in the words of one of them: ‘if we got things wrong, Kenny would escalate the issue. There’d be trouble. I had no doubt about this.’

Such a remark from a manager working with, and sometimes in conflict with, Kenny indicates that his stress on the empowerment of others did not mean he backed away from taking the lead himself. On the contrary, his was a leadership by example, and he would follow up with forceful and insistent argument. Whether you agreed or disagreed you knew that what drove him was a desire to ensure that ‘things got done’.

His qualities as both an inspiring and a practical leader gained wider national recognition when he became the Deputy Convenor of UNISON’s Northern Region. Together with the Convenor, Clare Williams, and also Kevin Rowan of the Northern TUC, they developed and have continued to strengthen a coherent regional strategy of resistance focused on economic and social alternatives – one of those urgent tasks at the forefront of Kenny’s mind to the end, where still there is much to get done (more of which below).

One of the reasons for the ability of the Northern Region to deliver the action that it promises has been the fact that a guiding principle of the regional leadership, no doubt due to Kenny’s influence, is that every campaign has a workplace dimension; it has to be discussed with workplace reps in a way that enables them to make it their own and develop it as they feel appropriate, with the support of the region.

Strategic intelligence

‘Getting things done’ with Kenny was usually part of a longer term and strategic attempt to shift the balance of power in favour of labour – and working people more generally. Whether it was challenging Thatcher’s Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) or resisting New Labour’s outsourcing and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), Kenny’s approach always involved first researching the enemy, exposing their arguments, identifying their weaknesses.

This helped to breakdown the appearance of the inevitability of marketisation – New Labour’s notion of ‘the real world’. It laid the basis for insisting, against ‘TINA’ (‘There Is No Alternative’), that there are alternatives.

In order to build up this strategic intelligence, Kenny led the branch and the region to deploy a constant and varied team of committed researchers, from UNISON, from the Centre for Public Services (now the European Public Services Strategy Unit), and from local universities. This research was usually a collaborative process based on valuing a variety of sources of knowledge, rooted in practice as well as the product of research: the method was to involve union activists in the investigation, following up their insights and questions in a way that helped to create a new level of awareness and confidence.

Well-researched arguments were also key to building alliances that shifted power relations in Newcastle’s Civic Centre, and now across the region. For example, the pressure to outsource depends for its success on the complicity of council managers – often a result of a fatalistic acceptance of the private sector as offering the only alternative to a cash-strapped, demoralised council. Kenny’s leadership combined convincing arguments with industrial action to great effect, breaking managers’ support for privatisation and building up their confidence in in-house solutions.

Moreover, in the context of the longer term strategy, the experience of developing these arguments and building for the industrial action created the momentum and membership involvement to drive the transformation and keep management accountable to the negotiated change.

Beyond the workplace; the importance of community and regional organisation

It should be clear by now that for Kenny, trade unionism could never be limited to the workplace.

His broad view of the role of trade unions had several aspects. A basic one was that as far as he and the UNISON branch was concerned, the council had a responsibility towards supporting staff when they faced problems outside the workplace, in the face of, for example racism in the community. At one point a black UNISON member was facing persistent racist harassment. Kenny’s response was to insist that council management sort out some protection for her, as one of their employees. The manager, Barry Rowland, now Newcastle’s Chief Executive, responding, as he often did, to Kenny’s threat of ‘trouble’, set up CCTV outside her house.

The same approach applied to members facing demolition of their houses and developer imposed ‘regeneration’. In 1999 Kenny led the branch to throw its considerable strength behind local residents of the old riverside community of Scotswood (in commercial terms, a prime inner city site) as they resisted a plan, named, without irony, Going for Growth, that declared their houses to be fit only for demolition with the inhabitants re-housed outside the area to make way for a private development.

His broader view of the role of the union also had a political dimension of a new kind, transcending the traditional division between industrial relations (the responsibility of the union) and broader social and political matters (the responsibility of the Labour Party). Kenny worked with many others over a long period to create – pragmatically, and without laying down ideologically dogmatic lines – practical political movements in which trade unions naturally took responsibility, in an open and inclusive manner, for social and political issues.

Whether it was defending communities, improving public services or resisting the BNP, Kenny sought to build a collective power based on trade unionists as both workers and as citizens.

Thus from the first sign that the BNP was trying to gain a foothold in the North East, exploiting the failings of Labour and the way it took working class support for granted, UNISON led an effective and persistent campaign countering the arguments of the BNP. In 2004 it launched the North East Unites Against the BNP and through the Northern TUC bought the unions together an into the campaign, ensuring that the BNP had no council seats in the North East.

The kind of city-wide collective power that Kenny imagined went well beyond the general talk of ‘links with the community’. It started by making practical use of the fact that union members are themselves part of the community. Kenny and other UNISON activists initiated a plan for UNISON members to become involved in supporting and building organisations in their own community, as well as funding community organisers.

At the same time, as cuts and privatisation began to threaten public services across the city, in the NHS and in the local Metro rail system as well as in local government, Kenny, as part of the leadership of the regional labour movement described earlier, with student and community organisations to create the Public Services Alliance to support and co-ordinate otherwise scattered struggles and develop and win popular support for a city and service wide programme of public led alternatives.

Politics: principled and pragmatic

Kenny would hate to be made out to be some kind of saint! But it must be said that he had an enviable ability to be unflinching in his principles, focused and true to well-crafted and collaborative strategies and at the same time very open-minded, flexible and pragmatic about finding tactics that actually worked, made sense to people and could be lead to tangible achievements. He could work politically at different levels.

The autonomy of a well-organised, politically sussed union, in the workplace and regionally, provided the conditions for this. Through this organisational base, he had in effect helped to ensure that there were strong forces behind him in dealings with the timorous conservatism of conventional politics.

At the same time, this autonomous source of strength with its wider links with autonomous movements internationally fed an imaginative vision of new kinds of radically transformative political agency.

Thus with others, inside and outside the Labour Party, he was able on the one hand to construct a region-wide political strategy that was supple enough to maintain a constructively critical relationship with the Liberal Democrats (in control of Newcastle council between 2004 – 2010 and key political players across the North East), at the same time as getting Labour groups to realise the need to provide a credible alternative approach to the cuts, using the union’s influence and credibility in communities as well as workplaces as a vital source of pressure. (This resulted, among other things, in Labour winning back Newcastle council in May on an agenda that UNISON had played a key role in shaping).

At the same time, witnessing – from the late 1970’s onwards, and speeding up with New Labour – the sapping and suppression of all socialist or radically democratic impulses from the Labour Party, he was always exploring practically and intellectually new forms of political organisation and representation, rooted in the visions and power of social and labour movements.

Here he drew both from the relatively recent past (we first met through debates following the book Beyond the Fragments in the early 80s, about learning from feminism to inspire convergences of social and trade union movements) and from international experiences.

He was especially inspired and curious about the experiment of Polo Democratico in Colombia. Polo is a modest alliance to campaign for political representation of varied sections of the vibrant Colombian social movement; it recognises that in the context of systtematic political violence against progressive organisations.

It is these extra-parliamentary movements which have the capacity to be the driving for social change. The intertwined struggles in Columbia, and especially the region of Valle del Cauca, for human rights and defence of public services and labour conditions against a particularly vicious variant of neo-liberalism, have been a central focus for Kenny. Not least because Patrick one of his three sons – all of whom he talked about with immense pride and love – was working there as an organiser and translator.

Through them and Clare Williams, the Northern Region of UNISON has been giving regular and focused support especially to campaigns and movements organisations in Cali.

One example from which Kenny felt there was much for UNSION to learn was Nomadesc, which has been using the tools of popular education to develop a new generation of leaders to replace those killed by the regime.

Polo Democratico caught Kenny’s attention because it made political representation the political servant of radical social and labour movements, rather than the Labour Party’s reverse tendency to treat movements, especially the trade unions, as subordinate – mere sources of finance and voting fodder – for the party’s electoral priorities.

He was enthusiastic about meeting one of PD’s Senators Alexander Lopez, who was president of Sintraemcali, a public services union, during its now legendary and ultimately victorious struggle to oppose the privatisation of Cali’s utility services.

In politics then, as in his other activity he dealt with the immediate practical tasks at the same time as his mind was working on a longer term vision of change.

Alternative plans; trade unionists as visionaries

Whether resisting privatisation in the Civic Centre, confronting the problem of unemployment and economic decline in the region, or facing the local elections with no party fully representing what the union stood for, Kenny was insistent that unions and communities need to promote a positive alternative.

Here several influences were at work. There was the vivid memory of the campaigns of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when similarly creative trade unionists from the shipyards and heavy engineering industries united the region in huge demonstrations insisting ‘Don’t let the North East die’.

Underlying the unity and chutzpah of these campaigns were the ‘workers alternative plans’ which these skilled and socially conscious engineers drew up to show that their skills were certainly not redundant, on any responsible public criteria.

Through extensive popular participation they drew up detailed practical proposals for the socially useful (and, it would now be said, ecologically necessary) products that they could be making instead of joining the queues for the dole. Now their ideas, around wind-power, agricultural equipment and so on, are common sense.

Kenny picked up the same logic and applied it to developing alternatives as part of the resistance to both privatisation of services and the private take-over of Newcastle’s most commercially valuable, and socially and aesthetically precious land. Once again the confidence that there is an alternative helped to build a huge demonstration, this time around the slogan, ‘Our city is not for sale’. Popular movements and initiatives in other cities, especially in Latin America, were also a source of stimulus to Kenny’s fertile imagination.

Hearing of the way that the Workers Party in Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil shared power with its citizens through participatory forms of budgeting and administration, he overcame his fear of flying and with financial help organised by UNISON’s then president Veronica Dunn, made the trip to see for himself, when in 2001, the World Social Forum gathered in Porto Alegre. He came back inspired, determined to make the ideal of participatory democracy a reality both in the union itself and in the goal for the administration of Newcastle Council.

An integrated strategy, glued with courage and mutual trust

In each these dimensions of a renewed trade unionism – empowering forms workplace organisation, strategic intelligence, organising as citizens as well as workers, developing alternatives, working politically at different levels, learning and working internationally – Kenny’s approach was not unique. It was in their integration into a coherent strategy that his work illustrates, in practice, a distinctive model; one which, surely, could help take our movement out of its present difficulties?

It was partly his personal qualities that provided the glue with which he held these dimensions (often in tension with each other) together. Now that he as an individual is gone, we need to make these qualities explicit too, in order to make them our own, in the spirit of Neruda.

Here I would stress his courage. Though sensitive and sometimes inwardly nervous and strangely unsure of himself, he always acted decisively in standing up to injustice. With intelligence and eloquence he never had any hesitation in challenging those with official power. And because of another quality, his instinctive belief and trust in others, this was never bravado, it was always with a view to mobilising the counter power to overcome the injustice and open up new possibilities of change.

Though rooted in the local and the specific, he was to his dying day, trying to spread and generalise.

As his favourite banner brought tenderly back from the World Social Forum, to grace the walls of the UNISON office on the first floor of the Civic, put it:

‘Globalise the struggle, globalise the hope.’

A PS on this note of generalisation: Kenny had been an enthusiastic participant in the European Social Forum, galvanising large UNSION delegations to participate in the Forums in Florence, Paris, Athens; and finally being a key organiser of the Forum in London, and a collaborator on Eurotopia, a cross-Europe magazine supplement on issues such as resistance and alternatives to privatisation.

One of the last projects he was working on was a ‘Better Way’, social-forum-style conference to be held in November in Newcastle. It will enable us to follow up his legacy with suitable strategic ambition while making sure it reaches workplaces, young people and other would-be activists across the North East!

Kenny Bell
30 May 1949 – 14 Aug 2011
Deputy Convenor, UNISON Northern Region
Branch Secretary, UNISON Newcastle City Council Branch

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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