Gerard Coyne — the candidate of the right, backed not just by the right-wing media but also by the most right-wing elements of the Labour Party — came within 5,500 votes of being elected the new General Secretary of Unite the Union.
McCluskey got 59,000 votes (45.5%); Coyne 53,500 (41.5%); and rank-and-file candidate Ian Allinson 17,000 (13%). McCluskey was re-elected, but in every other respect the election result was a major setback for McCluskey and the trade union politics which he represents.
The turnout was pitifully low: just 12.2%, even lower than in the 2013 general secretary election (15.2%) and the 2010 election (15.8%). The number of ballot papers issued (just over a million) also exposed the fall in Unite membership: in 2010 1.5 million ballot papers were issued. Unite’s official statement on the election result blames the low turnout on “the archaic and expensive balloting system imposed on trade unions by law.”
The statement is an evasion of reality. The key reasons for the low turnout are trade-union-political, not the method of voting. McCluskey was backed by every Unite Regional Secretary (apart from Coyne), most members of the Unite National Executive Council, and the Unite United Left. He was nominated by 1,185 branches representing 560,000 members. But the upshot of all this was just 59,000 votes.
With McCluskey backing Corbyn, and Coyne spewing out hostility to Corbyn, the election functioned as a proxy Labour Party leadership contest. But despite what was at stake, and despite the resources he was able to pour into his campaign, McCluskey only just scraped home. No-one could have foreseen the general election, but the impact of a Coyne victory in such a context does not bear thinking about.
When McCluskey first stood for election in 2010, he stressed that he would be a one-term-only general secretary. But this year he stood for election for a third time, in an unnecessary contest deliberately triggered by his own resignation. Clearly, many members were alienated by McCluskey’s cynical manipulation of the Rulebook, motivated solely by his desire to prolong his term of office. McCluskey was lucky that a lot of them abstained rather than voted for Coyne.
Hard-right Coyne deliberately ran a provocative hard-right campaign. His strategy was to mobilise Unite members who normally do not vote in elections. Fortunately, it did not work. But it very easily could have.
Given that he ran his campaign on a shoestring and was up against McCluskey’s bureaucratic machine, 17,000 votes can count as a respectable vote for Ian Allinson. But the collapse in his vote compared with that of the “left” candidate Jerry Hicks in 2013 (80,000) and 2010 (52,000) confirms that Hicks’s bedrock electoral support consisted to a large degree of right-wing opponents of McCluskey and ex-Amicus loyalists.
As Solidarity goes to press, Coyne is considering mounting a legal challenge to the election result, based on the number of Unite members reported not to have received ballot papers, or to have received them only when it was too late to vote. Coyne himself was also suspended from his job with Unite almost as soon as balloting had closed.
Reports of the reasons given for the suspension range from breaches of the Data Protection Act to circulating defamatory material during the election campaign. Whatever the precise details, the suspension certainly smacks of McCluskey’s bureaucratic machine targeting a (very right-wing) dissident.
The dominant left culture within Unite has an excessive focus on elections. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win elections. The problem arises when political life degenerates into electioneering at the expense of rebuilding grassroots organisation at branch and workplace level. The general secretary election result is a manifestation of the failure of that approach: a fall in union membership; a fall in turnout; and a fall in the vote for McCluskey. The key question now is how to bring about a transformation of that left culture and, thereby, of Unite itself.