By the end of January Len McCluskey had secured 180 nominations in his bid to remain Unite General Secretary. Ian Allinson, standing on a platform of rank-and-file democracy, had 19 nominations. Gerard Coyne, the candidate of the right, has not publicised how many nominations he has picked up.
Outside of the Midlands region, where he is the union’s Regional Secretary, he does not seem to be making headway. Nominations close on 17 February. But the number of Coyne’s nominations is not the best guide to how much support he might win when the voting period opens (27 March to 19 April).
Coyne knows that the bulk of the union’s activists — who turn up to branch nomination meetings — will back McCluskey. The target audience of Coyne’s media-backed “Take Back Control” campaign is the more passive union membership.
Despite being a highly paid and overpaid member of the Unite bureaucracy, Coyne is masquerading as the ‘anti-establishment’ candidate in the election – a down-market version of Farage and Trump’s claims to speak for the ordinary working man. “I will clean up our union and let in the sunlight. … It’s time to take back your union!” claims Coyne in his manifesto. “I will clean up Unite and put power back in your hands,” he writes in another election statement.
McCluskey is supposedly neglecting members’ interests because he is too busy “pulling the strings” of the Labour Party: “Our current leader spends too much of his time – and your money – playing at Westminster politics. I will never try to be the puppet master of the Labour Party.” According to Coyne’s manifesto: “Our current leader has been more concerned with playing Westminster politics than the bread and butter issues affecting you. Our union needs cleaning up, and our General Secretary should focus on protecting and defending Unite members.”
What Coyne fails to mention is that his own campaign is backed to the hilt by the right wing within the Labour Party. “Progress” even called on its supporters to join Unite in order to vote for him. The Labour right — Coyne’s very own puppet-master — supports Coyne in order to undermine Corbyn – a pretty clear example of “playing Westminster politics” by anyone’s standards.
Coyne is also shameless in his attacks on freedom of movement. He does not do dog-whistle politics. He says it loud and clear for everyone to hear: “There is one principle on which the UK government should not even begin to negotiate. That is over the question of control of our borders. … Theresa May should be saying now that there can be no compromise on the principle of taking back control of our borders.
“For Britons facing job insecurity, the presence of a very large number of foreign nationals adds to pressures on them at a time of austerity. … Those who voted for Brexit expect that promise of an end to uncontrolled immigration from the EU to be kept, and will feel betrayed if it is not.”
It would certainly be a disaster if Coyne were to be elected General Secretary. In fact, even if his election bid is unsuccessful, it will still take years to eradicate the political poison which his campaign is injecting into Unite. But the need to keep out Coyne cannot be a reason to abandon criticism of McCluskey’s record while supporting him, or for failing to take on board Allinson’s criticisms of the limitations of lay-member participation in Unite’s decision-making processes. The McCluskey election machine cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over the need to take the openings provided by the election campaign — however few they may be — to rebuild rank-and-file organisation in Unite.