Unite, the United Left and the future of the union.

January 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm (Johnny Lewis, left, unions, Unite the union, workers)

The left in Unite is -in many respects – riding high. The main left group in the union, the United Left (UL) controls the Exective and its candidate, Len McCluskey, won the recent General Secretary election by a big majority and will be taking over from February when Tony Woodley stands down as GS and takes charge of the union’s Organising Department.

Meanwhile the ‘Workers Uniting’ group that backed Les Bayliss in the GS election, has disbanded – although it seems that some of its supporters have formed a new outfit called the ‘Independent Left.’

On Saturday the UL held a meeting in Birmingham attended by about 250 Unite members. The main item on the agenda was the selection of candidates for the forthcoming Executive elections, resulting in this slate. ‘Unite Now’, by the way, is a new grouping formed by Simon Dubbins claiming to have no significant political disagreements with the UL…which raises the rather obvious question of why it exists… nevertheless, Unite Now seems to have the support of some good activists and the UL has quite correctly taken the view that in certain sectors (noteably Construction) and regions (East Midlands), the two groups should support each other’s candidates.

The other significant decision taken at Saturday’s meeting was to readmit the SWP to full membership of the UL. members of the SWP had been suspended from holding office in the UL following the SWP’s decision to support Jerry Hicks rather than Len McCluskey in the GS election. Leading members of the SWP’s Unite fraction had accepted their suspension with good grace and there was clearly an understanding between them and the UL leadership that the suspension would be lifted once the election was over. In the end, the following statement was overwhelmingly endorsed:

“This United Left Quarterly Supporters meeting endorses the action of the NCC (National Co-ordinating Committee – JL) in lifting the suspension of members of the SWP from holding office & representative positions within United Left with effect from the close of ballot for the election of General Secretary Designate. This is with the proviso that any future breaches of dicipline in relation to support for United Left slates will mean that they permanently exclude themselves from the United Left. The proviso also covers any breach of United left discipline agreed to be serious enough by a meeting of the NCC to prompt the calling of a United Left supporters meeting to debate and decide the matter.”

The decision to readmit the SWP was clearly correct, if only to ensure that some good industrial militants stay with the UL and are not tempted to throw in their lot with the increasingly bizarre fantasist Jerry Hicks, the preposterous petty bourgeois David Beaumont and their ill-named ‘Grass Roots Left.’

But there are challenges and difficulties facing the UL: not least the need to turn it from being a faction that still operates as though it’s an oppostion group, into a movement for rank and file democracy, willing to work with allies who may not be part of the UL, but stand for the interests of the union and the class as a whole. Formal political positioning is not the major issue in Unite: there is no “right wing” any more, and the UL’s differences with Bayliss and Davison (and before them, Aitkin), were not over formal political positions. This is something that people from other unions find difficult to understand. It’s well summed up by a long-standing Unite activist I spoke to recently:

“I’ve said all along that the major division in the union is not between ex-Amicus and ex-T&G, or between left and right: it’s between those who are willing to fight for an organisation that will organise workers and those who seek an income stream to preserve the lifestyles of themselves and their mates. We can all agree on the behaviour of Les Bayliss’s people and also about the millenarian fantasy world of the Hicks club; but what about issues in our own (UL) ranks? While some of us have been trying to build the union by opening up an honest dialogue with potential allies in Amicus and among the previously excluded ex-T&G active members on the best structures for the members and the class, some of “our” people were looking to defend their control of Branch and District funds as the major priority. They do not seem to realise that this is the union’s money and they are just the temporary cheque signatory. Many of the same people are strangely reluctant to help establish active and representaive Regional Industrial Sector Committees and prefer to do deals between factions to divide up power bases. If the UL is to move forward, it has to break from these practices and build a leadership that the entire union can have confidence in as our class faces what is likely to be the hardest fight in any of our lifetimes.”

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