Unite: the case for an early GS election

December 7, 2012 at 9:09 pm (elections, Johnny Lewis, unions, Unite the union, workers)

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:


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.



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.


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


  1. Nick Long said,

    This report is well argued and makes a good case for an early election.
    Unite RISC local gov
    London + SE

  2. Jim Denham said,

    The UL meetiing today overwhelmingly agreed to back McCluskey and the early election. McCluskey was present and spoke very persuasively. No vote was taken (which I think was a mistake), but the view (I’d say near unanimous) of the meeting was obvious.

    UL Chair Martin Meyer didn’t call for a vote in order not to embarrass the SWP, who are cleary in turmoil over this.

    Veteran Unite SWP’er Pete Gillard made a pitiful speech, and their Unite “leader” Ian Allinson simply lied about their position at the EC: he said they’d “abstained” whereas in fact they’d voted *against* the early election.

    In my view, the SWP would have been entirely within their rights to say, in effect, “We haven’t reached a decision yet, and as we’re a democratic centralist organisation we’re going to have to abstain for the time being.”

    As a member of the AWL, that’s my position.

    But they didn’t say that: Gillard bleated incoherently and Allinson lied. As a result they lost all sympathy and respect at the meeting. Only Martin Mayer’s legenadry tolerance and diplomacy saved their bacon.

  3. Bob Holgate said,

    Len McCluskey was declared elected on 21 November 2010 and was due to take up office on 1 January 2012 with outgoing GS Tony Woodley scheduled to retire in December 2011.

    It was intended that the winner of the 2010 General Secretary would work alongside Tony Woodley as “general secretary designate” until then. However, Tony Woodley offered his resignation as General Secretary, effective from January 31, 2011 (Wikipedia).

    So McCluskey’s 5 year term actually started on 1 February 2011. He has served only 1 year 10 months as GS.

    Yet an election for another 5 year term (starting next April) is underway!

    What a manipulation of democracy and how slavishly the followers and sycophants fall in line.

    Bob Holgate

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