This year the two million trade unionists in Unite will get to elect a single general secretary who will replace Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley in 2011.
So far there are four candidates: Les Bayliss, Simon Dubbins, Len McCluskey and Jerry Hicks. But none of these candidates look as if they will transform the union or respond to rank-and-file-led militancy.
A majority of activists in Unite call themselves part of the “left” (although this often means mostly support for the Stalinist regime in Cuba and subscribing to the Morning Star). Consequently all of the candidates bar Simon Dubbins proclaim themselves left wing. But what does that amount to?
Simon Dubbins, the un-elected Head of International Affairs for Unite, does not seem to have much chance of winning. The candidate most likely to get the support of the right wing of the union is Les Bayliss.
Bayliss is an Assistant General Secretary from the Amicus side of the union. He is being supported by the “Simpsonite” Workers’ Uniting Group. He has been described as Simpson’s enforcer. That may or may not be unfair but the objectionable nature of his platform is undeniable. Together with the usual noises about a “strong union” and standing up for members, he openly stands for a “strong disciplined leadership” rather than an accountable democratic leadership.
Bayliss has said: “We need to think about where the union wants to be. Skilled, professional, technical workers stick with the union historically — we are the traditional home for such workers and we need to continue to be.” Politicians and bosses “need to know that we are serious and that it’s going to affect the economy when we take them on and we need majority membership in significant industries to do that.”
In a union which still suffers from racism, sexism and craft chauvinism on the shop-floor, this is “dog-whistle” politics, playing to the most reactionary elements in the union. Bayliss is not interested in organising unskilled, “marginal”, migrant or women workers.
Len McCluskey is another Assistant General Secretary, but from the TGWU side of the union. He has been criticised as being a “mini Tony Woodley”. He does indeed represent continuity from the Woodley regime and support for the “organising agenda”. He also pledges to decentralise this organising to the local level, and make sure 10% of subscriptions go directly to the local branches.
This is all far better then Bayliss, though still a very long way from the root-and-branch democratisation the union needs.
McCluskey overwhelmingly won the backing of the United Left group at a hustings. The main argument for socialists backing McCluskey is to keep out Bayliss and to avoid splitting the broad left organisation and vote.
Jerry Hicks should in some ways be the obvious choice for socialists in Unite. He was a victimized union rep at Rolls Royce. He has pledged to take an average worker’s wage and to democratise the union. He won 39,000 votes at the Amicus sector General Secretary election last year and came second. There are problems and holes in his platform, but it is clearly better than McCluskey’s.
If the Hicks campaign represented a pole to unite a new left grouping ready to fight for a rank-and-file-led union, the problems and holes would matter less, but some things Hicks have done make it difficult for his candidacy to become such a pole.
Hicks went to the state run certification office to force a General Secretary Election on Unite, He made unfounded and damaging allegations about the union in his personal statement to members. And he staged two foolish walk-outs at the United Left hustings.
Members and supporters of Workers Liberty in Unite make the main focus of our work a campaign for a radical reformation of Unite into a fighting, democratic tool of the organised working class. To do this we need to cohere the left around the basic principles of rank and file industrial militancy.
What we say about this General Secretary election will have to stem from this perspective. We welcome comments.