Unite GS election: dilemma for the left

December 20, 2016 at 5:34 pm (elections, labour party, Unite the union)

In a split from his key ally Jeremy Corbyn, right, 'Red' Len McCluskey, left, the general secretary of Unite, said Labour and the unions must 'listen to the concerns of working people' 
Above: McCluskey and Corbyn

By Jack Kincaide

Len McCluskey’s decision to stand for a third term as Unite general secretary, and to bring the election forward by a year (while privately telling confidantes that if re-elected he will stand down after a further three years – ie 2020 – presents the serious left in Unite with a dilemma.

Virtually no-one – left, right or centre – within Unite thinks McCluskey’s decision to stand is a good idea. Even McCluskey’s loyal supporters in the union’s United Left (UL) are unhappy with his tactic of standing down only to stand again … but supporting ‘Lennie’ is a matter of faith for the UL. He is almost a cult figure, and the fact that he is the general secretary is ‘proof’ that Unite is a left-wing union. Even the many people critical of McCluskey’s latest decision would find it difficult to break from the UL, a current to which they have belonged all of their trade union lives (if you include its pervious manifestations as the T&G Broad Left and the Amicus Gazette group).

The excuses made for McCluskey over the £700,000 flat largely paid for by Unite also sums up how politically weak much of the UL is – either unwilling or unable to see just how bad this dodgy deal is, and how bad it looks to many rank and file members. Being ‘left’ is a matter of supporting ‘Lennie’ (who has the advantage of being quite personable), not a matter of actual politics. In fact, a large proportion of the UL members who sit on the Unite EC do not have any clear-cut politics. Hence their readiness to roll over and die on issues such as the Collins Review and Trident.

McCluskey announced his resignation last Wednesday. By Friday the national chair of the UL had already circulated a statement in the name of the UL which backed McCluskey’s candidature uncritically and to the hilt. It is true that if it had gone out to the membership, there would have been a (big) majority for McCluskey. But the fact that the statement was issued without even consulting the UL membership cannot be right.

The Morning Star – predictably – has had no hesitation in falling into line behind McCluskey. Perhaps slightly less predictably, so has the Socialist Party (gist of article: Len’s not perfect, but he’s doing a pretty good job. Advice to McCluskey: He should stand for election on a platform which he is not going to stand on. Real reason to support McCluskey in last paragraph: Four SPers are standing for election to the EC. If the SP does not support McCluskey, its members cannot stand on as part of the UL slate and are less likely to get elected).

There is a left wing candidate who on the face of it might be worthy of supporting against McCluskey: Ian Allinson, a respected workplace activist for 25 years at Fujitsu, playing a leading role in building the union in a largely unorganised industry. He led the first national strike in the industry in 2009-10. He served on the union’s executive for ten years before stepping down in 2014. His own workplace is currently in dispute and taking strike action over pay, pensions and job security.

As Allinson says on his blog, “Unlike the two establishment candidates, I’m in the workplace, at the sharp end like the thousands of other reps and activists who make Unite the fighting union it is today”.

It has to be said that Allinson’s political allegiance is to the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century group (aka RS21), an organisation that to its credit, split from the SWP over the ‘Comrade Delta’ scandal three years ago, but still holds to much of the SWP’s crude voluntarism (ie the rank and file are straining at the leash to fight the bosses and only held back by weak leadership), and -in particular – their refusal to engage seriously with the Labour Party.

Which brings us to the strongest argument against supporting Allinson and for a (very) critical vote for McCluskey: the right wing candidate is Gerard Coyne, a capable bureaucrat with a well organised and well  funded team behind him. He is standing on a “members must get their union back” platform that is, in reality, an appeal to members who want the union to cease its support for Corbyn and/or to withdraw from active engagement with politics. He is backed by the shadowy anti-Corbyn group around Tom Watson and Reg Race.

There is a growing sense that Coyne could win; this comes from being able to mobilise two groups of people, ex-AMICUS members who vote in elections and a broader anti-Corbyn vote which will be drawn from both sides of the union and who don’t usually vote. This outcome is made more likely with Allinson standing.

While Hicks (the ridiculous “left” candidate against McCluskey in the last two GS elections) pulled together two groups – the far left and skilled AMICUS members who don’t like the T&G tradition – he was unable to go beyond the activists Allinson constituency will solely be the far left which will take votes from McCluskey.

The real difference between McCluskey and Coyne is not industrial (where they don’t appear to have any substantial differences): it revolves around the Labour Party. Coyne’s main selling point will be the union’s involvement in politics, and specifically support for Corbyn. Coyne will have the backing from mainstream labour and the anti-Corbyn organisations, they will also have the press pushing this line: get rid of McCluskey you get rid of Corbyn.

A Coyne victory would see Corbyn’s position unravel in the medium term: the serious left inside Unite has to decide whether to support McCluskey on that basis.

4 Comments

  1. david walsh said,

    Reg Race? Now there’s a blast from the past. Oddly enough I was told by someone who knew his partner (Mandy Moore) almost a decade ago that the venerable Reg was at deaths door in some remote Derbyshire retreat. Another Mark Twain moment it seems.

  2. Glasgow Working Class said,

    What about a candidate that stands to represent the fee paying members and not onerous factions.

  3. Howard Fuller said,

    Vote for a trade unionist not a political activist. Vote for Gerard Coyne!

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      It goes without saying he/she would have to be a trade union member.

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