In a decision announced on 4 May, the Certification Officer rejected a complaint by Gerard Coyne that the General Secretary
election conducted by Unite the Union last year had been in breach of the union’s rulebook.
The election had been triggered by incumbent General Secretary Len McCluskey’s decision to resign – and then stand again.
When first elected as General Secretary in 2010, McCluskey had promised to be a “one-term-of-office-only” General Secretary. But last April’s election was the third time he contested the position. His victory secured him a twelve-year term of office in total.
McCluskey had claimed that his decision to resign was for the good of the union:
A General Secretary election had to be held sooner or later; by resigning early, McCluskey would save the union money; it would allow the General Secretary election to be held at the same time as elections for the union’s National Executive Council.
The right-wing challenger to McCluskey was Gerard Coyne. His was a particularly nasty campaign, targeted at the most passive and most prejudiced sections of the Unite membership.
Despite the resources McCluskey poured into his election campaign, and despite the support he enjoyed from the Unite “machine”, McCluskey won by less than 6,000 votes on a 12% turnout.
Coyne, Unite’s West Midlands Regional Secretary, had been suspended from his job a week before the election result was announced. He was subsequently sacked by Unite in June.
In one of several sets of legal proceedings launched by Coyne after the election, Coyne lodged a complaint with the Certification Officer that McCluskey had never really resigned from the position of General Secretary, and the election was therefore invalid.
The Certification Officer was a creation of the 1974-79 Labour government. Its function was largely to check that only bona fides trade unions could register as trade unions. Over time, it has become the policeman, the judge and the jury presiding over the trade union movement.
In a nutshell, Coyne’s argument was: The rulebook allows an election to be held only if a General Secretary retires, resigns or dies; but McCluskey continued to exercise his General Secretary functions throughout the election campaign; he had therefore not resigned from his position; the election was therefore invalid.
The Certification Officer rejected Coyne’s complaint: McCluskey had handed in his letter of resignation in December of 2016; that counted as his resignation; McCluskey subsequently, so to speak, was working off his notice.
A further Certification Officer hearing will be held in June, dealing with Coyne’s nine other complaints about the conduct of last year’s election.
These include: denial of access to union databases to Coyne; blocking Coyne’s attempts to raise issues of alleged misuse of union resources; harassment of Coyne and his supporters by union employees; and illegal use by McCluskey of “robocalling”.
It is good that Coyne lost.
But the downside of Coyne’s victory is that McCluskey will feel emboldened to press ahead with his clampdown on dissent in Unite and his increasingly authoritarian top-down approach to running what is, at least on paper, a lay-member-led union.