Unite general secretary election: don't let Coyne close down the Labour revival!

Submitted by martin on 9 January, 2017 - 6:03

We should vote for Len McCluskey in the Unite general secretary election for which nominations open on 16 January because it is a first-past-the-post poll, and without left-wing votes going to McCluskey there is a real risk Gerard Coyne will win.

Coyne is heavily backed by the Labour right wing around Tom Watson and Progress. If he wins, he will swing Unite decisively to the anti-Corbyn camp. That could close down all the openings for Labour revival opened by Jeremy Corbyn's leadership victories.

Vote Coyne, and get Watson and Progress: that's the deal.

In the 2013 general secretary election there was no right-wing candidate. In the 2010 poll the right-wing vote was split between two right-wing candidates. Their combined vote was only 16,000 less than the vote for McCluskey.

A good chunk of the 53,000 votes won in that ballot by Jerry Hicks will have been by no means tightly anchored to the left. Many members who voted Hicks because they saw him as closer to the old AEU strand in Unite, or because they backed his promise to boost the role of retired members, or because they liked his complaint about "the relationship with Labour being put ahead of members' interests" (as Hicks put it), may be seduced by a well-crafted Coyne campaign.

Coyne probably has a better "machine" behind him than Bayliss or Cartmail did in 2010. The media will be much more aggressively anti-McCluskey than in previous elections (partly using ammunition which, it has to be said, McCluskey has manufactured for them.)

If there were no difference between McCluskey and Coyne, then we could dismiss the "splitting the left vote" argument. But there is a real difference.

We have many criticisms of McCluskey, including as regards his role in the Labour Party. But McCluskey is right about one thing: Unite's backing for Corbyn "in 2015... was a decision of our elected lay Executive Council, and in 2016 of our 600-strong Policy Conference, by a vast majority... Gerard Coyne's campaign is not being driven by concern for Unite and its members' interests. It is being scripted by the failed plotters in the Parliamentary Labour Party... in their political project to bring back Blairism".

Build independent rank-and-file links

During his time in office McCluskey can rightly claim credit for the re-organisation of the union's branch structures (replacing amorphous and often moribund geographical branches by workplace-based ones) and building the union's Organising and Leverage Department.

He has presided over the development of Unite community branches, targeted at bringing community activists, the unemployed, and students into the trade union movement, and bringing trade union resources to bear in support of their campaigning.

McCluskey eventually backed Corbyn in the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest, and backed him again in the 2016 leadership contest.

But that is only one part of McCluskey's record.

Unite's record on industrial disputes has fallen well short of what's needed. The union has endorsed industrial action where members have pressed for it, but its industrial policy has been reactive rather than strategic. And Unite's campaign – or lack of it – against the new anti-union laws has been pitiful. Shortly before the Manchester TUC demonstration which was due to be the unions' big mobilisation against those laws, McCluskey undermined the effort by an ad-lib offer to accept large parts of the laws if the Tories would make concessions elsewhere.

McCluskey is backing Trident renewal. Instead of campaigning for Unite policy for a million green jobs, McCluskey backs environmentally destructive projects such as Heathrow expansion. And what his current position is on freedom of movement of labour is anybody's guess.

McCluskey initially backed Andy Burnham for the Labour leadership in 2015, and in January 2017 undermined Jeremy Corbyn (maybe only inadvertently or by ineptitude) by suggesting Corbyn should stand down in 2019.

In 2013 McCluskey backed the Collins Review. All members of all Regional Political Committees, plus the entire Executive Council, were summoned to London to hear him declare his support for the Review.

But when the Review "kicks in" properly, probably in 2020, it will radically diminish the role of trade unions in the Labour Party – the exact opposite of what McCluskey declares he supports.

There have also been issues about Unite's record as an employer: A study leaked last year found that over half of Unite's female full-timers had been bullied or harassed, either by fellow employees or by lay members.

McCluskey appointed Andrew Murray, an avowed supporter of the North Korean regime, as chief of staff of the union. Under McCluskey and Murray, Unite has become an increasingly top-down trade union. Overpaid, unelected and unaccountable full-timers make key decisions while members are allocated, at best, a role as stage extras. Activists are left isolated, and communication in Unite is often one way (top-down).

The United Left grouping in Unite helped McCluskey win general secretary back in 2010, and will be relied on to get out the vote for him again. But under McCluskey's leadership the United Left has not been improved into a lively activating element within the union. Rather, it has become more and more a simple electoral machine.

Coyne needs to be defeated. But this cannot be at the expense of pretending McCluskey's record is anything other than what it is, nor at the expense of throwing away the openings – however few they may be – for rebuilding genuine rank-and-file and left-wing organising in Unite.

Open Letter to Ian Allinson

Dear Ian,

You've announced that you're standing for election as Unite's next General Secretary. And a lot of what you say makes sense.

But there are other issues in the election campaign material you have produced to date which – to us, at any rate – don't seem to make sense.

You recognise what a disaster it would be if Coyne were to win the election. Your response to the argument that you're splitting the left vote is: "Unite members are better than that. In recent General Secretary elections the right-wing candidates haven't even made second place."

Sorry, but that doesn't make sense. No-one can know for sure, but Gerard Coyne's campaign is well-resourced and well-honed, and has a good chance of capturing members whom the right wing could not reach in 2010. Realistically, we know that Jerry Hicks's campaign in 2010 got a lot of votes from members who responded not so much to the left-wing elements in Hicks's stance as to other anti-McCluskey elements in it; realistically, your (creditably) more straightforwardly left-wing campaign, starting with tiny resources, will not be able to reach those members.

If you were to pretend that there is no difference between McCluskey and Coyne, then you could dismiss the "splitting the left vote" argument. But you recognise that there is a real difference.

In your election material you make great play of your support for Corbyn. In fact, you argue that you are more pro-Corbyn than is McCluskey.

That is an acknowledgement on your part that there are some pretty important things happening in the Labour Party right now, and that socialists need to have something to say about them. The problem is what you say about them.

"Backing Corbyn through the Labour Party structures in not enough." What's needed is "a real movement of resistance to Tory policies at grassroots level." It is "not good enough" simply to "wait for Jeremy".

And although you would be "happy" to join the Labour Party, Labour's rules do not allow you to join. If you did try to join, it would only "provide further ammunition to those on the right complaining of entrism to attack the left and Corbyn."

Just to round it off, you effectively tell us that if Corbyn were to be unseated by the right (which would be facilitated by a Coyne win – you're back to that question again), then you would revert to your default position of disaffiliation from the Labour Party.

We agree: There needs to be a fightback in workplaces and on the streets as well as in the Labour Party. But it makes no political sense to do the one and not the other, nor to advocate a division of labour: You do the Labour Party, I'll do the workplaces.

The Labour Party right wing recognises that there is no Chinese wall separating the Labour Party and trade unions. That's why they're backing Coyne!

If socialists in the Labour Party followed your lead and refrained from doing anything which might "provide ammunition" to the right wing, then we may as well shut up shop. The mere presence of socialists in the Party "provides ammunition" to the right wing.

Even your argument that you cannot join the Labour Party because its rules do not allow you to do so does not make sense, especially given that you define RS21 (of which you're a member) as "a socialist discussion and activist group." That's pretty much how the Fabians define themselves.

So, what do you think you and the Labour Party's biggest trade union affiliate should be doing about the Labour Party (other than doing what trade unions should be doing anyway, i.e. campaigning in the workplaces and on the streets)?

But the central question is how your election campaign relates to what we agree is the key task facing socialists and activists in Unite: organising an effective rank-and-file grouping which campaigns for grassroots democracy and activism, irrespective of who wins the election.

In a huge and disparate union like Unite, that is a big task, requiring a big "critical mass" for lift-off. You haven't had the resources to be able to come forward as candidate for an organised rank-and-file grouping, or really to be able to hope that your campaign will reach wide enough and deep enough to build roots across diverse sectors from which such a grouping can grow.

There is a merit, of course, in a campaign which can do no more than use the platform provided by the general secretary election "just" to say a lot of things which make sense and need to be said to a broader audience.

But much of that will fail to have grip. Unite members sympathetic to your ideas on freedom of movement, on Trident, and on union democracy, will back McCluskey to keep out Coyne. Not because they ignore McCluskey's faults, but because they know that victory for Coyne will throw the political weight of Unite behind the anti-Corbyn-plotter Labour MPs.

It may empower those plotters to start shutting down the possibilities for political revival of the labour movement opened up since Jeremy Corbyn's leadership victory in 2015.

Such a political shutdown will also make building rank-and-file networks in Unite more difficult, however good your explanations and arguments on some issues in the election may have been.

But if we can work together, while criticising McCluskey where necessary, to keep the political possibilities open, then we are also working together to help keep alive and develop the political ferment out of which (with the help of explanations, arguments, and debate) a real rank and file network can develop.

Dale Street, on behalf of Workers' Liberty members in Unite

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