Above: the reptile and its master
The very idea of Peter Mandelson complaining about “cabals” within Labour “trying to exert influence” is simply laughable. The reptilian Mandelson was central to New Labour’s 1990′s takeover of the Labour Party, when he and his Blairite cronies systematically undermined Party democracy, imposing ex-Tories and SDP’ers as parliamentary candidates while excluding long-standing, loyal members.
So Mandelson’s extraordinary bleating about the efforts of Unite in supporting working class people as parliamentary candidates, and in particular, the nomination of Unite member Katie Murphy for Falkirk, deserves to be treated with one bloody great horse-laugh. Unite’s alleged “manipulation” involves encouraging its members to join the Party and subsidising their first year’s membership. This is done quite openly and is entirely within Party rules. The support given to Blairite would-be candidates by Mandelson’s ‘Progress’ group, funded by multi-millionaire Lord Sainsbury, is much more secretive and conspiratorial. Yet Mandelson has the audacity to accuse Unite of “manipulation”!
Len McCluskey puts Mandelson in his place in an article in today’s Graun. Lenny’s a bit more polite than I would be, mind:
Peter Mandelson’s selection argument is about politics not procedure
Opposition to union-backed MPs is driven by a desire to keep New Labour the preserve of a socially restricted elite
You report that Peter Mandelson is accusing my union, Unite, of “manipulating selection procedures” in the Labour party, which “stores up danger for a future Labour government” (Labour warned on selection panel procedures, 13 May).
This does no service to Labour democracy or the facts. I have no axe to grind with Lord Mandelson. His second stint at the business department under the Labour government was marked by fresh thinking about industrial policy, which I wish he had had the opportunity to develop; and he seems more willing than some to acknowledge that the pre-2008 economic model was flawed.
But now he appears rattled that Blairite true believers are not winning every Labour nomination. Your report does not have him alleging any breach of party rules or procedural abuses, perhaps because there are none. Unite’s aim is simple – to recruit members to the party (welcome, I would have thought) and then encourage them to endorse union-supported candidates in one member-one vote selections. A sinister construction is put on this – “selections are being run by a cabal of union members”, according to your report. This is, to say the least, an irony. Many serving Labour MPs were parachuted into constituencies at the request of leading members of the last Labour cabinet, including Mandelson himself.
Dishing out seats on the basis of personal connections bears a closer resemblance to the rotten borough system before 1832 than it does to modern democratic procedures, and it also helps keep politics as the preserve of a socially restricted elite. Mandelson also appears untroubled that Lord Sainsbury’s vast wealth, channelled through the Progress organisation, has been used to give particular candidates, invariably on the right, an advantage in Labour selections.
Mandelson argues, correctly, that it is “wrong to conflate trade unionists and the working classes”, although the overlap is hard to miss. I don’t conceal that I want to see more Labour MPs supporting the sort of policies developed by Unite and other trade unions, regardless of their personal backgrounds. But Labour MPs look less and less like the people they seek to represent. The big strides made in securing more women Labour MPs have also, unfortunately, been paralleled by a decline in those from working-class backgrounds. Mandelson has no proposals to address this.
This is really an argument about politics, not procedure. Mandelson is probably intensely relaxed about cutting democratic corners if it means more “New Labour” special advisers and the like on the green benches, but utterly opposed to the normal workings of Labour democracy if it means leftwing or trade union candidates being chosen.
Let’s have the political debate instead. I am confident that most potential Labour voters want to see both a more diverse Labour party in parliament, and also a Labour government radically different from the last one.
Finally, I object strongly to his insinuation that union-backed MPs might be loyal not “to the party as a whole”, but “a section of it”. Trade unionists have always been Labour loyalists. Rightwing MPs, not unions, split Labour in 1931 and 1981, just as it was New Labour parliamentarians who fuelled the debilitating Blair-Brown factionalism that so weakened the most recent Labour government, as Mandelson surely knows.
Background: the TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association) is about to ‘transfer’ into Unite.
The late Alexander Walkden (former General Secretary of TSSA) comments via ouija board:
I’m looking down on the disgraceful shenanigans at the Head Office named after myself. I am turning in my grave at the way the current ’leadership’ are mismanaging the Association. They are doing a disservice to the existing membership, and have forgotten why they are there. The members ARE the union so I cannot understand why they would intimidate and bully those who gave up there time and put so much effort into representing the TSSA in their workplaces only to be driven out of the Association.
We have lost (at the last count), 9 very experienced activists due to the bullying.
We cannot afford to lose any members never mind activists & now, due to the bullying they not only have left but have joined another Trade Union and are finding that those who trusted, admired and relied on those activists have also left.
We cannot afford to lose any members so WHY are the GS, AGS & FTO’s continuing with this bullying culture?
Current GS – Manuel Cortes
AGS No1 – Frank Ward
AGS No2 – Lorraine Ward
AGS No3 – John Page
AGS No4 – Steve Coe
FTO - Luke Chester
Jobsworth – Val Stansfield
My first question is why, for a total membership of 30,000, do we need to have 4 Assistants?
Due to mismanagement, we are now one of the smallest trade unions in the country, if not the smallest, but you are all acting like your back in the 1950s & ’60s when our membership was at its height, however, never in the history of the TSSA have so many bullies been employed at the same time.
Ironically in my day, this could not have happened because (shamefully) women were never given equal opportunities. But the demise of the modern TSSA Union can be put down to one person in particular, Lorraine Ward.
If she had any integrity at all, she would hang her head in shame and leave the TSSA to become a stronger union but as history has shown time and time again, she won’t do that as she believes she has done nothing wrong and so will continue to bully staff for the rest of her working life.
The global union federation IndustriALL (of which Unite and the USW are major affiliates) has been running a campaign to support workers in the Bangladesh textile and garment industry.
Below, Tony Burke (writing yesterday at Left Foot Forward) gives some more backround:
The tragedy in the Bangladesh garment industry at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, which has claimed the lives of over 1,000 workers when a building that housed eight factories collapsed, has lead to outrage across the world.
Condemnation has come from all quarters. Governments, NGOs and customers who have been wringing their hands saying “we must put a stop to this – but how do we do it?”.
Those persons condemned include the building’s owner, (who went on the run and now faces with calls from workers for his execution); the owners of the factories; the builders themselves (now all under arrest); but also the Western customers, such as Primark, Mango and others who allegedly ignore abuses of millions workers in the garment industry in order to produce cheap clothing for sale in the West.
The Rana Plaza tragedy follows on from the deadly fire which killed over a hundred workers at Tazreen Fashions in late 2012. And this week eight more workers were killed in a fire at a clothing factory.
Mass industrial manslaughter
The global manufacturing union federation IndustriALL has correctly described the Rana Plaza tragedy as “mass industrial manslaughter”.
Seeing large cracks appear in the building, workers at Rana Plaza evacuated the building – only to be forced back to work by the factory owners.
At Tazreen escape and entry doors and windows were locked shut and workers could not escape the blaze.
IndustriALL has been running a long-term campaign to support workers in the Bangladesh garment industry. There are around 100,000 Bangladesh companies associated with the garment industry, employing up to four million workers who feed the West’s insatiable appetite for cheap clothes. The industry itself is worth 20 billion US dollars .
According to BRAC, one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh, the country has a safety inspection force of just 18 people.
IndustriALL reports that there are 39 unions in the national garment industry, and too many times they have failed to co-operate with each other. Read the rest of this entry »
Votes cast: 225,801
Figures for 2010 election:
McCluskey: 101,000 (42%)
Hicks; 52,000 (22%)
Bayliss: 46,000 (19%)
Cartmail: 39,000 (16%)
Union News’ (uncritical) profile of McCluskey, here:
For what it’s worth, I think this is quite a good result. Hicks is a politically incoherent opportunist and egotistical maverick whose election would have been a disaster for Unite. But his respectable protest vote will send a message to McCluskey and the present leadership: there’s no room for complacency.
Above: it’s about them – or at least it should be
Ballot papers for the Unite general secretary election are going out now. If any member hasn’t received one by Wednesday 5 April, they should contact the Unite ballot enquiry service.
The first thing that will strike many members is that in their election addresses, both candidates make personal attacks on each other – something that has hitherto been considered very bad form in Unite elections. The challenger Jerry Hicks accuses the incumbent Len McCluskey of holding an unnecessary election in order to hang on to power, and of being a bureaucrat who’s never led a real fight. McCluskey describes Hicks as someone who’s played no role in the union in recent years, as a “political opportunist” without a clear agenda and who is backed by “the discredited Socialist Workers Party.”
None of this is very seemly, but is probably inevitable when there are just two candidates, both claiming to be on the left and with no major policy differences between them. It should also be noted that Hicks and his supporters have been making highly personal attacks on McCluskey both verbally and in print, ever since the election was announced.
As regular readers will have already worked out, I’ll be voting for McCluskey. That’s despite the fact that on two questions (whether this election is really necessary and the Gen Sec being on the average wage of the members) I agree with Hicks.
So why vote for McCluskey? Firstly, in my opinion, he’s been an effective General Secretary who has developed and begun to implement a serious strategy for reversing the decline of the union. He has supported members in struggle (no dispute has been repudiated under his leadership), is radically restructuring the union with an emphasis upon workplace branches where possible (something Hicks seems to oppose – but more on that shortly) and has begun to implement a new political strategy that involves fighting for the union’s policies within the Labour Party rather than writing out a blank cheque (and again, Hicks is completely unclear on the Labour link).
In my view, questions like branch re-organisation and (re)building a functioning industrial and political structure for the union, are far more important than the General Secretary’s salary, or indeed, the election of officials (accountability of officials is the real issue in Unite at the moment, it seems to me).
In fact, if you examine Hick’s election address, it’s little more than a not very coherent wish-list of often quite vague demands and aspirations, together with whinging about things like “Emails/letters go(ing) unanswered“(!)
Let’s take some specifics. In his address, Hicks says this about the branch reorganisation: “Workplace branches are logical, but member will agree changes not be told.” What exactly does that mean? Is Hicks actually in favour of the branch reorganisation, or not? I ask this question because not so very long ago, Hicks was saying something slightly different, viz: “ No member will be re-allocated to a Branch without their prior agreement.” If taken literally, that can only mean that an individual member would have the right and ability to veto branch re-organisation – an extraordinary position to take in a democratic, collective organisation!
Or take this, from Hicks’ address: “Confront the anti union laws and support unofficial action where necessary.” EITHER that wording really means campaigning for the repeal of the laws and from time to time, taking a decision to push them to the limit… OR it means a commitment to confront the law on every occasion. If it’s the former, then it’s no different to McCluskey’s position (eg during the London bus dispute last year). If the latter, it’s a recipe for bankrupting the union.
But underlying these specifics is a fundamental misjudgement on the part of Hicks and his supporters, about the present state of the class struggle and about what’s happening in Unite.
Jim Kelly, in his very detailed article, has made many of the points that need to be made, and I look forward to reading a serious reply from Hicks and/or his supporters. In the meanwhile, I’d like to make some further observations:
Underlying much of what Hicks and his supporters say is the assumption that McCluskey and the “bureaucracy” are afraid of militant action by the membership, or are simply so useless that they inevitably sell it out. Now I think the Kelly article deals with this, but let me pose a more general question: why would McCluskey want to sell out strikes? From his own, “bureaucratic” point of view, why would he do it? His position depends ultimately upon his industrial muscle, and he surely knows that. McCluskey has been accused of many things, but being a fool is not usually one of them.
There is a further point to be made here: when unions take industrial action there is no guarantee of winning and the reasons for defeat are not always simply betrayal by the bureaucracy. Some disputes turn out to be practically unwinnable, despite the best efforts of members and bureaucrats alike. It is often very difficult, when you’re not directly involved, to make a judgement as to whether a given dispute could have been won if different, more militant, tactics had been employed. Hicks and his people like to blame every defeat (and, indeed, some partial victories they call “defeats”) on the “bureaucracy” in general and McCluskey in particular. This criticism, if made in good faith, demonstrates an incredible ignorance of how Unite actually operates. It assumes that the General Secretary micro-manages every aspect of union activity, and industrial disputes in particular. This is a fantasy. What the Gen Sec certainly can and should do is set the political direction and overall approach of the union. McCluskey has dome this by, for instance, closing down the mechanism within the union for repudiating disputes.
Unite has some 600 officers working for 10 Regional Secretaries (not the Gen Sec). Not all those officials are in agreement with McCluskey’s “fighting-back union” strategy. Industrial disputes are controlled by the internal structures and committees of the union, not directly by the Gen Sec. Of course, on the big political disputes and campaigns the Gen Sec will have a major say, but he cannot simply close down a dispute or set the “line” or determine strategy or tactics. In Unite, disputes and campaigns really are run by officers and senior reps/stewards. A classic case in point is the public sector pensions dispute last year. Hicks, in his election address, says: “Len McCluskey talks big but failed to back the co-ordinated public sector strike last March. A big mistake!” What Hicks fails to mention is that McCluskey and the Executive of the union gave full backing to the call for strike action in March. It was the lay members and reps in health, local authorities and the MoD who voted (after UNISON and the GMB pulled out) not to strike. But to admit that wouldn’t fit in with the Hicks world-view.
The often craven end result of such a simplistic way of looking at the world was well illustrated at the last AGM of the so-called ‘Grassroots Left’, the group that Hicks formed to back his leadership ambitions. One of the platform speakers was bemoaning the fact that the factory where he works (a major Midlands car plant) had just voted to accept a very poor pay deal. He started to blame this on McCluskey’s “lack of leadership” before momentarily hesitating as a thought seemed to strike him in mid-flow: “well, actually us on the Joint Shop Stewards Committee voted to accept, but only because we felt we had no alternative.” That about sums it up, I think.
The truth is that Hicks and his supporters are not fit and proper people to be running Unite. Those of us who’ll be voting for Len McCluskey are doing so with varying degrees of criticism, but we all recognise that his leadership has been generally positive and that his strategy for reversing decline and building a “fighting-back union” is the only coherent way forward on offer in this election.
A BBC South West programme, Inside Out, will tonight look back at the racist practices that stopped black people from working on the buses in Bristol.
In 1963 a young black man in Bristol was refused an interview for a job on the buses because of the colour of his skin.
It sparked a protest which attracted national attention and ultimately led the way to the Race Relations Act.
Bristol bus boycott 50 years on
Reporter Alastair McKee has been to meet and interview some of the people involved in the boycott.
It is essential viewing for anyone with illusions about the history of the Bristish trade union movement, or who thinks UK unions have a qualitively better record on dealing with racism than, say, the Israeli Histadrut. Many of the arguments used at the time by union members and lay officials (see clip above) will have a familiar ring to anyone who follows the antics of today’s anti-EU fanatics of both right and “left.”
Inside Out West is broadcast on Monday, 25 February on BBC One at 19:30 GMT and nationwide for seven days thereafter on the iPlayer.
Statement of AWL members of Unite on the General Secretary election:
Workers’ Liberty members in Unite will be critically supporting Len McCluskey, the candidate of Unite United Left (in which we are involved), in the forthcoming general secretary election.
Above: McCluskey gives the ‘Ralph Miliband Lecture’ earlier this year
There have been some positive improvements within Unite under McCluskey’s leadership. A culture of greater democracy and debate has been encouraged, and the move towards industrial reorganisation and workplace branches is positive. On the whole the union is more prepared than in the past to back its members in taking action, and providing resources to help organise direct action in support of industrial disputes. The new political strategy, whilst needing work to implement and make a reality, also represents a step forwards in how the union understands its relationship to the Labour Party.
However, our support for McCluskey is critical. We are opposed to the circumstances in which this election was called, as we do not think that a rushed election now is necessary. It cuts against moves to improve democracy in Unite, and make it very difficult for other potential candidates to stand. It can instead be seen as a manoeuvre by the incumbent to reduce the likelihood of a contested election.
We also believe that an honest accounting of McCluskey’s time in office shows many weaknesses and failures. While the union has, in some places, shown greater willingness to organise and back radical industrial action, in others it has only done so after significant pressure from below — as in the case of the construction electricians’ dispute against pay cuts, where the union was initially hostile to the sparks’ campaign, with senior officers referring to them as “a cancer”.
The high-profile 2010-2011 British Airways dispute against deskilling and the introduction of a two-tier workforce, which began before McCluskey’s term of office but continued after his election, was mishandled. It was fought defensively from the outset and concluded with a deal that saw workers win only reversals of management attacks made during the strike. McCluskey was prominent in the national media talking up what was ultimately a shoddy deal, hailing it as a victory for negotiation! Despite more fighting talk from McCluskey, Unite’s involvement in the 2011 pensions dispute ended with a whimper, with members in the NHS taking part in “workplace protests” only on 28 March, the last strike day in the campaign, despite a 94% rejection of the government’s offer.
Unite under McCluskey’s leadership has vacillated on whether it will back Labour councillors who agree to defy cuts; there has been some left posturing, but when pushed at a United Left meeting to clarify the position McCluskey would only say that councillors should argue within Labour groups to defy cuts, but accept the Labour whip to vote for them if they were defeated. Rather than demanding Unite-backed Labour councillors defy the cuts collectively, and supporting them in doing so, McCluskey has said such defiance is a “personal choice” for individual councillors.
The union’s new political strategy should see it taking a more combative stance in terms of its relationship to the Labour leadership. At the 2012 TUC Congress, Unite backed a radical motion from the Fire Brigades Union calling for public ownership of the banks. But the union’s own motion to the Labour Party’s 2012 conference on the same issue was decidedly less radical, and even then largely surrendered away in the composite (quite a feat for the country’s biggest union and one of the most significant players at conference). Despite backing the new political strategy, McCluskey showed few signs of confrontation or opposition at the Labour conference, where he hailed Ed Miliband’s woeful “One Nation” speech as “the best speech by a Labour leader since John Smith” (!).
On top of this, McCluskey presides over an officialdom based on significant bureaucratic and material privilege, including on his own part, giving him access to a wage and a lifestyle closer to that of the bosses and government than his own members.
Nevertheless, we do not believe the challenge to him by Jerry Hicks is credible. Jerry’s record as an activist is in many ways respectworthy, and on some issues — such as the election of union officials and the principle of union officials taking only the average wage of their members – Workers’ Liberty agrees with him against McCluskey. On others (such as Hicks’ support for full rights for retired members, his hostility to reorganising the union towards workplace branches, and his opposition to the political strategy towards the Labour Party), we are closer to McCluskey’s position than Hicks’.
We oppose the decision of the United Left leadership to exclude Socialist Workers Party members from the UL because of their party’s support for Jerry Hicks. This is a bureaucratic “solution” to a political problem. The SWP is wrong to support Hicks. Their members in the UL should be challenged about their support for Hicks, not treated as pariahs.
The UL has always prided itself on its culture of open and democratic debate. It should be broad enough to accommodate dissent about who to back in General Secretary elections. Excluding SWP members from the UL won’t win them round to supporting McCluskey. Engaging in argument with them might.
We do not think Hicks’s candidacy represents a meaningful opportunity to develop the kind of rank-and-file network we believe necessary in Unite. Such a network will involve will surely involve many of the activists currently backing Jerry Hicks’ campaign, as well as many not currently engaged in the formal politics of the union. But a key element in building it is engagement with and development of the main left-wing grouping of militants and activists within the union, namely the United Left. We will not therefore back Hicks against the agreed candidate of the United Left, despite our agreement with him on some issues.
In 2010, Workers’ Liberty backed the Socialist Party’s Rob Williams in a three-way contest (involving Williams, McCluskey, and Hicks) to determine who would be the United Left’s candidate for the general secretary election. When McCluskey won the nomination, Hicks and his supporters walked out of United Left and stood independently. We did not back Hicks’s challenge because we did not believe it offered a more credible basis than the existing United Left for developing a rank-and-file movement within Unite. We believe subsequent events have vindicated us; despite gaining an impressive vote in 2010, Hicks has failed to build any ongoing initiative or caucus within the union around the issues on which he stood. The “Grassroots Left” network in which he is now involved has very little life or activity and, as a glance at its website will show, exists primarily as a vehicle to promote Jerry Hicks.
Workers’ Liberty advocates voting for Len McCluskey, but with a clear understanding of what he represents. Beyond this, we call on Unite activists to join United Left to pressure the McCluskey leadership to act on and implement what is positive in its strategy, to criticise and oppose it where it is weak or wrong, and to develop the United Left network into a genuine rank-and-file caucus that can push for democratic and political reform within Unite.
The following statement was issued on 7th January 2013, following the SWP’s decision to back Jerry Hicks in the forthcoming election for UNITE General Secretary. We publish it for the information of readers, especially those in Unite. I will be commenting on the statement and related issues shortly - JD
Following the SWP’s decision this weekend to back Jerry Hicks for UNITE General Secretary, the UNITED LEFT must regrettably carry out the decision previously made to exclude SWP members from all our activities.
There is no doubt that the UNITED LEFT has tried very hard to keep the SWP within the fold in order to maintain the unity of the Left. Once before during the 2010 General Secretary election, the SWP also backed Jerry Hicks in spite of a clear and overwhelming decision at a properly constituted hustings meeting to back Len McCluskey. UNITED LEFT decided on that occasion to suspend SWP members for the duration of the election campaign but they were readmitted into the fold on the clear condition that there was no repeat of this lack of basic discipline.
The SWP’s decision to back Jerry Hicks a second time comes after an even more decisive resolve of UNITED LEFT to reconfirm its support for Len McCluskey. Unlike before, this decision comes after experience of Len’s exemplary role for 2 years in office as UNITE General Secretary. His achievements as a Left General Secretary can be summarised as follows:
- Real leadership in the fight against austerity – UNITE’s message is clear: “no to all cuts-don’t make workers pay for the crisis”
- Very rapid progress to consolidate the merger
- Real progress in branch reorganisation to create workplace branches
- Genuine empowerment to members with the branch as the base
- Harmonized branch funding implemented to all properly constituted branches
- £25M dispute fund set up
- Leverage strategy developed and now major resources devoted to further work
- A genuine fighting back strategy that is seeing real wins for UNITE workers when they take strike action
- Community membership introduced – a first in the union movement
- 50,000 new members from a relaunched 100% campaign
- Plans for a new conference/training centre in Birmingham city centre
- A real fightback in the Labour Party with a brand new UNITE political strategy – no more blank cheques!
- A culture of openness, tolerance and democracy throughout the union
- New ecoms strategy giving UNITE the best website and member contact in the union movement
- Membership data systems overhauled and simplified
- No repudiations of any dispute since Len took office
- Root and branch review started of every UNITE department to make it “fit for purpose”
- New impetus to our international work -developing a fighting back organising strategy in all the Global Union Federations
- Ending the TGWU/AMICUS divide and genuinely uniting our new UNITE Union
In fact, what is that Len hasn’t done that means he does not deserve the vote of UNITED LEFT supporters and indeed the UNITE membership as a whole?
For Unite members, this has been an extraordinary success. Len has exceeded our expectations of him when we first selected him as our UL candidate for GS in 2010. And together with a progressive unified Executive we are building the best and biggest fighting back union in Britain and Ireland.
In the light of the above it is even more extraordinary that SWP have chosen once again to back Jerry Hicks rather than Len McCluskey, bearing in mind that Jerry Hicks is unemployed, takes no part in any UNITE constitutional committee anywhere and represents no-one, and has no administrative experience. Would you really trust this man to run a £150M organisation like UNITE is these extraordinary times? Apparently the SWP would!
The decision to exclude the SWP from the UNITED LEFT should rightly include any other UL “supporter” who similarly is backing Jerry Hicks, whether in the SWP or not. We are an open and tolerant organisation but surely no-one can argue that following such a decisive round of consultation and discussion within UNITED LEFT where near unanimous decisions to back Len have been the norm across the country, we should remain open to those who flout this most basic requirement of left discipline? If those within our midst cannot support our candidate Len McCluskey who has proven true to the UNITED LEFT in every principle, who has excelled himself in his delivery of UNITED LEFT objectives in office, and who is widely regarded as the most impressive and most effective left General Secretary in the UK and Irish Trade Union Movement, then they really are in the wrong organisation.
Finally we wish to pay a special tribute to Frank Wood, UNITE Executive Council member for Health, who has immediately renounced his membership of the SWP following this weekend’s decision and will be backing Len. Thank you Frank for your courage and your conviction. You are welcome back into the fold and may others like you follow swiftly as well.
United Left Chair
United Left Secretary
The ‘United Left’ (UL) grouping within Unite the Union meets tomorrow (Saturday 8th December) to discuss the proposal to hold an early election for General Secretary. This has been agreed in principle at the union’s EC last week, but unless the UL support it, Len McCluskey’s bid for early re-election will be in difficulty. McCluskey’s enemies within the union have already denounced the EC’s decision. The reasoning behind going for an early election has not, so far, been widely publicised within the union, so as a service to Unite members we’re publishing the case that will be put to the UL tomorrow:
WHY THIS ELECTION?
Unite is – at last – making a difference. As the GS told the Policy Cnference this year, for too long Unite was just a promise, a hope. In the last two years that promise has started turning into a reality.
A FIGHTING BACK UNION: Leading from the front and standing shoulder to shoulder with our members, Unite has shown that it is possible to fight and win, in both the private and public sectors. Pioneering a new and developing leverage strategy we have won a series of major disputes over recent months, including those on London buses, the electrical contractor and wider construction industry and in manufacturing at Honda. We have also given a lead in the public sector, particularly in the fight for pension justice.
AN ORGANISING UNION: the 100 per cent campaign has been an outstanding success, already bringing in more than 45,000 new members in Unite-organised workplaces. No other union is attempting anything like this, let alone succeeding at it. While our organising strategies aimed at presently unorganised sectors of the economy continue to bring not only new members to our union, but a new confidence and developing strength to union organisation across the economy.
A PROGRESSIVE UNION: with our new political strategy we are at last starting on the hard work of making Labour a vehicle for working people’s aspirations once again. Working systematically across our regions to identify constituencies where we can take positive actions to ensure our values of solidarity, dignity, respect and fairness are once again at the heart of our party. Further, Unite has led in setting up the new think-tank CLASS which has received a broad welcome for its project of reviving radical thinking.
A DEMOCRATIC, TOLERANT UNION: Unite is at ease with itself – united, without the factional politics of the past; but also open and democratic, a union run by its members where fear and intolerance play no part. A union without the excesses and abuse at the top of the recent past.
A UNION IN THE COMMUNITY: We have launched our community membership plan to great enthusiasm. Reconnecting with our communities and offering a home in Unite to all those not in paid employment. Our community strategy is developing a new confidence and a collective voice that will only strengthen our organisation over the coming years; in addition we have extended our structures for retired members and youing npeople.
A CAMPAIGNING UNION: Unite is leading the way in its campaigns for justice and fairness for all. We are the leading voice in thew labour movement fighting austerity and the attacks on our NHS, Welfare State and Public Services. To support this we are developing a sweeping new e-communications strategy which will tap into the campaigning energies of our members.
IN ADDITION: Unite has completed its constitutional integration, bedding in a structure of around 400 constitutional committees and reorganising our branches to root them more firmly in the workplace.
As a result, Unite is now playing the leading role in the entire labour movement. It is pioneering the revival of the organised working class at a time of great economic and political difficulty. No other trade union is even attempting the range of initiatives Unite is undertaking.
THIS WORK IS UNFINISHED: Indeed, in some respects we have only just begun. Many of these initiatives are still in their early stages. In some – like our political work – final achievement of our objectives is till uncertain. All depend for their success on a continuation of the leadership that has been given over the last two years.
That leadership has embraced activists at all levels of Unite, but above all it has come from the Executive Council and the General Secretary. Without that united, collective leadership, it would be easy for our union to to lose momentum and fall back into the easy routines of managing decline.
That is why the issue of renewing the General Secretary’s mandate should now be considered.
As things stand, the next General Secretary election would take place in 2015. That means that in 12-18 months in jockeying for succession would start. The authority of the present General Secretary would inevitably start to erode as officers and activists look to the future beyond.
Under normal circumstances that would not be the end of the world, it is an unavoidable price of democracy. But these are not normal circumstances. For all the reasons stated, Unite’s potential still hangs in the balance, and it is no exaggeration to say that the future of our movement depends on the continuation and extension of our leadership.
SO THERE ARE TWO PATHS:
1. WE STICK TO THE EXISTING ELECTORAL SCHEDULE
This means that Unite will start to drift in a relatively short period of time. Probably the first casualty would be a loss of impetus in the 100 per cent campaign, which has required a big culture shift for many officers. Our united impact into the Labour Party in a crucial time leading up to the next General Election would also be disrupted and diluted.
It is also important to note that the existing schedule means a General Secretary election more-or-less simultaneously with the next General Election. Whatever the outcome of the General Election, this is bound to be a particularly demanding time for Unite’s political work. Either we will (as we hope and believe) be dealing with a new Labour government which we will be seeking to hold to an agenda of working people’s interests, or we will have to deal with the fall-out of a defeat which might raise the most profound questions about the future of the Labour-union relationship. Either way, it will be no time for a leadership vacuum or instability at the top of Unite.
2. WE SEEK A REFRESHED MANDATE FOR THE GENERAL SECRETARY NOW, ASSURING THE CONTINUITY OF UNITE’S LEADERSHIP FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS
It is now possible, because of legal changes, for the General Secretary to serve past the the previous limit of sixty-five years of age. If re-elected, Len McCluskey’s new term would end while he is sicty-seven.
In the future, serving slightly past 65 will surely come to seem a normal, unexceptional, situation. However, today this inevitably gives rise to comparisons with the recent past, when various General Secretaries in Unite’s predecessor unions tried to extend their terms past the age of 65.
There are two significant differences today. First, Ken Jackson, Roger Lyons and Derek Simpson all sought to extend their terms without consulting the membership (Derek it must be said, with some justification because of merger arrangements). That is not the case here – we are talking about asking the membership to renew Len’s mandate in a democratic election.
Second, this is about ensuring the continuity of left progressive leadership in the labour movement’s leading organisation. This decision is not about Len: it’s a much bigger decision you are being asked to make, about the wider interests of the left in our movement. If elected Len would remain as General Secretary of Unite and the leading voice for working people across the labour movement for two years beyond his current term. Importantly, Len has pledged that if elected, his extended term to 67 will be at no additional cost to the union beyond him reaching the age of 65.
It could also be argued that an early election constitutes an unnecessary expense for the union. That is not the case except in the very short term – any money spent on a GS election in 2013 will be money saved by not having one in 2015.
In summary, this is an opportunity for Unite to reaffirm its present dynamic, progressive course, and settle its leadership for a vital five years ahead. That is why the Left is asking Len to stay on for another five years (two more than originally envisaged), and why the Left should be asking the Executive Council to sanction a General Secretary election early in 2013. This move will no doubt be attcked by our enemies among the Tories and the employers and most likely within “New Labour” too. But it should be welcomed by everyone with our union and our movement’s best interests at heart.
McCluskey’s own statement, here