For more on the Unite General Secretary election, see here.
One of the many benefits of the 18 June decision by Howard Beckett to withdraw from the Unite General Secretary contest was that it exposed – yet again – the abyss which separates the "investigative journalism" of the Skwawkbox website from mundane reality.
For nearly a year Skwawkbox has propagated a narrative in which Beckett, a millionaire lawyer and charlatan-socialist, was a man of principle hated by the Establishment for his uncompromising commitment to class-struggle politics.
At every stage the narrative combined factual inaccuracies, half-baked conspiracy theories and quickly disproven predictions. An added – and sometimes antisemitic – twist was provided by the sad coterie of Skwawkbox followers who use the website to give vent to their own political fantasies.
Prior to being appointed Head of Unite’s Legal Department in 2012, Beckett had no record of trade union or Labour Party activism. Beckett’s main feat since 2012 has been to squander millions of pounds of members’ dues on no-hope legal cases.
Not so the Skwawkbox Beckett.
The latter had “taken on the Establishment fearlessly.” He combines “a lawyer’s skills and a fighter’s mindset.” He was the only candidate with “courage, real vision and fire,” and “the only one in the contest who wants to challenge the status quo.”
His “‘take no sh*t and no prisoners’ approach is exactly what Unite and the whole labour movement needs.”
When Beckett competed with Steve Turner last summer for the endorsement of the United Left (a Broad Left grouping in Unite) as its candidate, Skwawkbox predicted victory for Beckett:
“His endorsements make him favourite to be the left candidate for the Unite General Secretary contest. He has emerged as the favourite after a flood of endorsements from the grassroots of the union and giants of the labour movement.”
In the event, Beckett lost (albeit narrowly). Sidestepping the fact that some Beckett supporters had been unable to vote because they provided out-of-date e-mail addresses, the response of Skwawkbox was to declare Beckett the real winner:
“The number of supporters unable to vote was enough to give Howard Beckett a clear win. A post-election report on the mechanics (of the election) has confirmed that the United Left proclaimed the wrong winner of the contest.”
Although the rule of United Left hustings is that participants must abide by the outcome, Beckett announced a month later that he would be standing for election for General Secretary anyway.
Skwawkbox welcomed his decision and dismissed the possibility that three left candidates – Sharon Graham had also announced her intention to stand – would provide the right-wing Gerard Coyne with a chance of winning:
“Unite members are not likely to face a ‘split left vote’ scenario. Coyne is extremely unlikely to be able to meet the new qualification threshold. If Coyne wants to run again, he must obtain nominations from 5% of branches – 150 branches.”
“The likely absence of a right-wing challenger,” Skwawkbox assured its readers, “means Unite members can make a straight choice of their preferred candidate to succeed McCluskey without fear of ‘splitting the left vote’.”
But Skwawkbox was clearly unaware of the fact that in the 2017 General Secretary election contest Coyne had secured 187 branch nominations. 187 is a bigger number than 150.
Nor did it understand that “the new qualification threshold” which had been introduced, with McCluskey’s blessing, was for the purpose of keeping rank-and-file candidates off the ballot paper – not Gerard Coyne.
None of this prevented Skwawkbox from continuing to predict that Coyne would not secure a place on the ballot paper:
“Exclusive: Coyne set to fail nominations threshold to enter Unite contest. … Right-winger Gerard Coyne, who in January announced his intention to stand for election, looks set to fail to achieve the required number of branch nominations to enter the contest.”
With the competition to secure branch nominations opening up in May of this year, the factor blocking Coyne was no longer just the threshold itself but also Beckett’s “storming campaign to become the next Unite General Secretary.” According to Skwawkbox:
“The pattern emerging is that where Coyne is beaten in his back yard, the one beating him is Howard Beckett. Coyne’s camp has been boasting about the number of nominations they think they have sewn up – and the candidate disrupting their plans is Beckett…”
“The best chance of making sure Coyne fails again – either by preventing him achieving the branch nominations he needs to get onto the full ballot, or defeating him if he manages to get over that line – rests with Howard Beckett.”
The soon-to-be-disproven predictions that Coyne would not secure enough nominations overlapped with the claim that if Coyne failed to make it onto the ballot paper, then his support would switch to Turner. According to a Skwawkbox ‘exclusive’ in March of this year:
“If Coyne fails to qualify to stand, the Labour Party and union right will be forced to choose a new ‘horse’ to back among the candidates likely to qualify – and early signs are that they view Steve Turner as the option least threatening to right-wing interests.”
This soon evolved into a full-blown narrative that the right wing was putting pressure on Coyne to stand down, in order to boost Turner’s chances of beating Beckett. In April Skwawkbox ‘reported’:
“Starmer’s team is pressurising right-winger Coyne to quit the Unite contest in case he pulls votes from Turner. Pressure is being applied behind the scenes to get disgraced right-winger Coyne not to stand in case he takes votes from Steve Turner.”
Skwawkbox repeatedly returned to the same theme the following month:
“Some of the Labour right are backing Coyne again as they expect him to turn Unite into the puppy of their faction – but others have reportedly urged him to stand down and are backing Steve Turner.”
“Members of Keir Starmer’s front bench are even said to be pressurising disgraced right-winger Gerard Coyne to step down from the contest for fear that he will draw votes away from Turner.”
“Starmer’s allies told the BBC in April that they considered Beckett as Unite General Secretary to be their ‘nightmare scenario’ and attempted to get the hard-right, disgraced Gerard Coyne to drop out of the contest in case he took votes away from their acceptable option of Steve Turner.”
A “behind the scenes” plot by Keir Starmer to deny Beckett his rightful place as General Secretary of Unite the Union by cutting a deal with Coyne to benefit Turner? This was grist to the mill of Skwawkbox followers:
“Don’t forget: The Führer said he wanted Coyne to stay out, to give his man Turner a better chance. There is more reason than being unpopular at play, I reckon. The Dark Forces of the Trilateral Humanoids at work!”
“Since Turner is clearly to the right of Beckett – we both know that’s the only reason Keir would want him to win – why should he be seen as being any part of the left at all?”
The website’s faithful followers were even more outraged when Skwawkbox reported that Turner was being backed by Jon Lansman, although their ire was directed more at Lansman than at Turner:
“Why do you think the Labour right is backing Turner, including that Zionist snake Lansman? … What can you expect from a kapo?” (Kapos were prisoners who helped run Nazi concentration camps.)
Nominations closed in early June. Contrary to the assurances of Skwawkbox, Coyne was on the ballot paper. Contrary to the Skwawkbox narrative that Beckett’s “storming campaign” was crushing all opposition, Beckett secured 328 nominations – compared with 349 for Graham and 525 for Turner.
Skwawkbox put a positive spin on the results: “Beckett emerges as the ‘pan-Celt’ candidate – with strong English support too. Scotland, Ireland and Wales overwhelmingly back Beckett, the clear choice of the Celtic nations, and with far stronger support in England than his rivals had hoped.”
In any case, Skwawkbox explained, “nominations are easily arranged by supporters of candidates who have spent years building up networks among people who control branch and workplace activities.”
But precisely that explained the pattern of Beckett’s nominations. Beckett did very poorly in England (just 86 nominations). But nearly half his nominations (143) came from Scotland, where the Unite-bureaucracy-run "Progressive United Left Scotland" delivered nominations from a myriad of small and inactive branches.
Skwawkbox now ramped up its pro-Beckett campaign to a new level. While Graham scarcely received a passing mention, the website directed its fire at Turner and contrasted his right-wing credentials with Beckett’s super-militancy, super-charisma and super-integrity.
Turner had “made clear his intention to cooperate with disastrous Labour leader Keir Starmer and not rock Starmer’s boat – a stance that has seen Turner backed as a preferred alternative by the likes of Jack Dromey and Luke Akehurst, the secretary of the right-wing Labour pressure group, Labour First.”
Comments posted by Skwawkbox followers amplified this line of attack:
“If Turner wins Unite, Starmer will have the support of the three biggest unions: GMB, UNISON and Unite, and nothing will shift him or the direction of travel. Starmer, Evans and co., the tools of the Establishment, will have unhindered ability to purge the Left and crush hope for a generation.”
“With Turner’s supporters including Luke Akehurst, Jack Dromey, Labour First and Owen Jones, what more do people need to decide who is for us and who is against us?”
“(Owen Jones’ tactic is:) spread fear about a Coyne victory in order to get Turner elected. It’ll probably work as they’ve got access to cash and influence across the media. Turner is just another tool in Starmer’s box.”
“If I could vote, I’d not vote for Turner or Graham. They’re like 24/7 mask-wearers who know that Covid-19 currently exhibits a 99.8% (and, thanks to ONS data, can be seen to never have been lower than 98.27%) survival rate. Not people to respect or trust in.”
“Turner Coyne Graham will crush the welfare of ALL workers if they get their grubby hands on the Unite leadership. Graham Coyne Turner will collaborate with the entryist parasites Mandelson, Blair, Starmer, Evans to destroy true Labour.”
By contrast, Beckett stood out as “a signpost, not a weather vane.” His “direct and fiery approach” had generated “an obvious groundswell of support, with large numbers saying they would be voting for the first time in a Unite election in order to support him.”
Beckett’s “vision, passion and calmness under attack” made him “the only real current opposition.” He was “the only candidate who has shown themselves to be willing to shake up the status quo and challenge the Establishment.”
Under no circumstances should he withdraw from the election: “Beckett continues to withstand massive attacks and huge pressure – not only from the Labour right but from those within the notional left who have their own agendas and interests in seeing him out of the contest.”
He was the sole candidate on the ballot paper who could beat Coyne: “Those who want Coyne defeated really have only one option: Back Beckett, the candidate who inspires people enough to join the union to be there with him even though they won’t be able to vote for him.”
If Beckett were to withdraw, it would be a political disaster: “People are looking for courage, real vision and fire – and on those criteria there really is only one candidate in this contest. Trying to rule out the one left candidate with those qualities is a road to the disaster its advocates claim to want to avoid.”
Again, comments from Skwawkbox followers functioned as an echo chamber for these paeans of praise:
“Howard should hang on in there. See how the right and social-democrats are desperate for him to withdraw, and perhaps less than half of branches nominated? The actual grassroots will have their say when it gets to the ballot.”
“Beckett is the one man the British Establishment, the polite, cosy, comfortable and cosy Labour right who are in the wrong party, do not want. Howard Beckett facing down the forces of darkness and standing his ground is how it was, how it was supposed to stay, and how it ought to be with all unions.”
“Anyone who suggests Beckett pulls out now is not what the left needs. … I urge everyone with a vote to give that vote to Howard Beckett only. Do not use second options.” (Unite General Secretary elections are first-past-the-post – there are no second options. But how was a Skwawkbox reader meant to know that?)
“Just as Jeremy defeated those with binfuls of right-wing nominations, Beckett, I predict, will do the same. Like Jeremy, Beckett will demolish Luke Akehurst’s Turner and Graham. And as you may very well know, word is that the Mandelson cabal’s latest desperate instruction to Sir Rodney is to order Coyne and Graham to be dismissed.”
And then came Friday 18 June 2021.
Not just another “Black Friday” in the annals of the British labour movement.
More of a veritable Midnight in the Century.
Not just another anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
More of a veritable Waterloo for the labour movement itself.
Not just the collapse of another Skwawkbox prediction.
More of a complete disintegration of Skwawkbox "investigative journalism" itself.
Beckett announced that he was withdrawing from the General Secretary contest. And not only that. He was calling on his supporters to vote for the Lansman-backed, Dromey-backed, Akehurst-backed, Owen-Jones-backed tool of “Starmer, the Zionist racist” and of the forces of evil in general.
Skwawkbox briefly reported:
“Beckett has sacrificed himself for the sake of the cause. This site is not telling anyone to back any other candidate. … Machine politics carries no inspiration and this is a dark day for the movement.”
Unfortunately, the "investigative journalism" of Skwawkbox was not investigative enough to uncover the deal demanded by their man of principle for withdrawing: Overall responsibility for the Scottish, Welsh and Irish regions of Unite. Graham said "no". Turner said "yes".
Of course, it must also be said that even the best investigative journalism can get things wrong. Fearlessly seeking out those nuggets of truth concealed by the fake news of the mainstream media can sometimes uncover only fool’s gold.
No doubt Bernstein and Woodward wrote a few duff stories in their time. And could the Sunday Times really have been expected to know that those 62 volumes of Hitler’s diaries were a poor-quality forgery?
But some contributors to the comments sections of Skwawkbox articles have been unkind enough to argue that the website’s enthusiasm for Beckett was not a case of radical journalism gone wrong but simply one of mercenary calculation:
“Skwawkbox has a (cronyist) excuse for being an uncritical PR megaphone for Beckett. He bailed out Steve (Walker) (who runs the website) over that libel case (involving ex-MP Anna Turley).”
“Beckett helped out Steve by organising Unite funding of huge libel case costs incurred by Skwawkbox. In return, Skwawkbox has been an uncritical megaphone for Beckett – passing on sundry smears against Turner, and constantly bigging up Beckett’s support. It’s pathetic ‘left’ journalism. Just another example of that old ‘favours given for favours done’ tradition of politics.”
Scope here perhaps for a real piece of investigative journalism?