Unite the Union needs a new left

Submitted by AWL on 1 July, 2020 - 7:36 Author: Dale Street
Unite the Union flags

With a resurgent right in the political wing of the labour movement, and a General Secretary election due to take place sooner rather than later in the giant union Unite, recent election results demonstrate the urgent need — and opportunity — for a regroupment of the genuine democratic left in the union.

The results of the elections which closed on 18 June for the Executive Council (EC) of Unite were not good for the United Left (UL), once the dominant “Broad Left” in the union.

In the 2017 EC elections there were contests in 28 of the constituencies (geographical, industrial, etc.) represented on the EC. But this year there were contests in just 16 of the constituencies. Overall, nearly half the seats on the EC were not contested.

Only in the Retired Members constituency (which did not exist in 2017) was there a decent turnout (33.6%) this year, with the UL candidate winning by over 3,000 votes.

That is an indication of the weakness of the UL. The age cohort in which it has traditionally been rooted and which previously delivered at least half-decent turnouts and electoral success has now moved on from the world of work into retirement.

Turnout in this year’s EC elections was far lower than in the previous EC elections, held in 2017.

This year no other constituency reached even an 8% turnout. Just four had a turnout of more than 7%. Five constituencies had a turnout of between 6% and 7%, and six had a turnout of between 5% and 6%.

In 2017 turnout was not good, but it was higher than 9% in seven constituencies, and below 6% in just two.

The even lower than usual turnout could be partly explained by the fact that election campaigning was impossible (other than in cyberspace) because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A number of left candidates argued — only to be ignored — that the elections should be postponed until campaigning was possible. The level of turnout vindicates their position.

A number of UL slate candidates had only a surprisingly modest number of branch nominations, and in only two geographical constituencies did they secure election to the EC. In industrial constituencies they did particularly poorly in Local Authorities, Passenger Transport and Construction.

Even where UL candidates were elected, there was often a slump in their votes.

In Scotland, for example, two UL candidates saw their vote collapse by between 40% and 50% compared with the previous EC elections. In 2017 the two candidates had a fraction short of 5,000 votes each. But this time one picked up less than 3,000 votes, and the other not even 2,500 votes.

There is no sign of a new generation of activists replenishing the ranks of the UL. In the 2017 EC election voter turnout in the Youth constituency was just 2.9%. This year, the Youth constituency was not even contested.

Despite its poor performance in the elections, it appears that the UL still enjoys a small majority on the Executive Council, mainly because of the number of seats it occupies for constituencies which were not contested, but also because of its well-known practice of signing up as UL members non-UL candidates who defeat UL candidates in EC elections.

In any case, it appears that the UL is about to enter an informal “coalition” with the Unite Alliance grouping — not to better pursue any militant class-struggle policy, but simply to keep (nominal) majority control of the EC.

The EC election results saw wins for left candidates outside of the ranks of the UL. They also saw wins for candidates to the right of the UL, although the increasingly blurred profile of the UL and the decay of the old right, too, makes it increasingly difficult to define who is to the right of whom.

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