Workers’ Liberty members in Unite will be critically supporting Len McCluskey, the candidate of Unite United Left (in which we are involved), in the forthcoming general secretary election.
There have been some positive improvements within Unite under McCluskey’s leadership. A culture of greater democracy and debate has been encouraged, and the move towards industrial reorganisation and workplace branches is positive. On the whole the union is more prepared than in the past to back its members in taking action, and providing resources to help organise direct action in support of industrial disputes. The new political strategy, whilst needing work to implement and make a reality, also represents a step forwards in how the union understands its relationship to the Labour Party.
However, our support for McCluskey is critical. We are opposed to the circumstances in which this election was called, as we do not think that a rushed election now is necessary. It cuts against moves to improve democracy in Unite, and make it very difficult for other potential candidates to stand. It can instead be seen as a manoeuvre by the incumbent to reduce the likelihood of a contested election.
We also believe that an honest accounting of McCluskey’s time in office show many weaknesses and failures. While the union has, in some places, shown greater willingness to organise and back radical industrial action, in others it has only done so after significant pressure from below — as in the case of the construction electricians’ dispute against pay cuts, where the union was initially hostile to the sparks’ campaign, with senior officers referring to them as “a cancer”.
The high-profile 2010-2011 British Airways dispute against deskilling and the introduction of a two-tier workforce, which began before McCluskey’s term of office but continued after his election, was mishandled. It was fought defensively from the outset and concluded with a deal that saw workers win only reversals of management attacks made during the strike. McCluskey was prominent in the national media talking up what was ultimately a shoddy deal, hailing it as a victory for negotiation! Despite more fighting talk from McCluskey, Unite's involvement in the 2011 pensions dispute ended with a whimper, with members in the NHS taking part in “workplace protests” only on 28 March, the last strike day in the campaign, despite a 94% rejection of the government's offer.
Unite under McCluskey’s leadership has vacillated on whether it will back Labour councillors who agree to defy cuts; there has been some left posturing, but when pushed at a United Left meeting to clarify the position McCluskey would only say that councillors should argue within Labour groups to defy cuts, but accept the Labour whip to vote for them if they were defeated. Rather than demanding Unite-backed Labour councillors defy the cuts collectively, and supporting them in doing so, McCluskey has said such defiance is a “personal choice” for individual councillors.
The union's new political strategy should see it taking a more combative stance in terms of its relationship to the Labour leadership. At the 2012 TUC Congress, Unite backed a radical motion from the Fire Brigades Union calling for public ownership of the banks. But the union's own motion to the Labour Party's 2012 conference on the same issue was decidedly less radical, and even then largely surrendered away in the composite (quite a feat for the country's biggest union and one of the most significant players at conference). Despite backing the new political strategy, McCluskey showed few signs of confrontation or opposition at the Labour conference, where he hailed Ed Miliband’s woeful “One Nation” speech as “the best speech by a Labour leader since John Smith” (!).
On top of this, McCluskey presides over an officialdom based on significant bureaucratic and material privilege, including on his own part, giving him access to a wage and a lifestyle closer to that of the bosses and government than his own members.
Nevertheless, we do not believe the challenge to him by Jerry Hicks is credible. Jerry’s record as an activist is in many ways respectworthy, and on some issues — such as the election of union officials and the principle of union officials taking only the average wage of their members – Workers’ Liberty agrees with him against McCluskey. On others (such as Hicks' support for full rights for retired members, his hostility to reorganising the union towards workplace branches, and his opposition to the political strategy towards the Labour Party), we are closer to McCluskey’s position than Hicks’.
We oppose the decision of the United Left leadership to exclude Socialist Workers Party members from the UL because of their party’s support for Jerry Hicks. This is a bureaucratic “solution” to a political problem. The SWP is wrong to support Hicks. Their members in the UL should be challenged about their support for Hicks, not treated as pariahs.
The UL has always prided itself on its culture of open and democratic debate. It should be broad enough to accommodate dissent about who to back in General Secretary elections. Excluding SWP members from the UL won't win them round to supporting McCluskey. Engaging in argument with them might.
We do not think Hicks’s candidacy represents a meaningful opportunity to develop the kind of rank-and-file network we believe necessary in Unite. Such a network will involve will surely involve many of the activists currently backing Jerry Hicks' campaign, as well as many not currently engaged in the formal politics of the union. But a key element in building it is engagement with and development of the main left-wing grouping of militants and activists within the union, namely the United Left. We will not therefore back Hicks against the agreed candidate of the United Left, despite our agreement with him on some issues.
In 2010, Workers’ Liberty backed the Socialist Party’s Rob Williams in a three-way contest (involving Williams, McCluskey, and Hicks) to determine who would be the United Left’s candidate for the general secretary election. When McCluskey won the nomination, Hicks and his supporters walked out of United Left and stood independently. We did not back Hicks’s challenge because we did not believe it offered a more credible basis than the existing United Left for developing a rank-and-file movement within Unite. We believe subsequent events have vindicated us; despite gaining an impressive vote in 2010, Hicks has failed to build any ongoing initiative or caucus within the union around the issues on which he stood. The “Grassroots Left” network in which he is now involved has very little life or activity and, as a glance at its website will show, exists primarily as a vehicle to promote Jerry Hicks.
Workers’ Liberty advocates voting for Len McCluskey, but with a clear understanding of what he represents. Beyond this, we call on Unite activists to join United Left to pressure the McCluskey leadership to act on and implement what is positive in its strategy, to criticise and oppose it where it is weak or wrong, and to develop the United Left network into a genuine rank-and-file caucus that can push for democratic and political reform within Unite.