By Ann Field
Len McCluskey launched his campaign for re-election as Unite General Secretary at a meeting held in Glasgow last Saturday. Thanks to Mark Lyon, the International Transport Workers Federation full-timer who chaired the meeting, it ended in a fiasco.
In fact, the fiasco had been built into the meeting before it even started.
Since the summer of last year Lyon has dedicated himself to splitting the United Left Scotland (ULS), the Scottish ‘section’ of the national United Left (UL), which functions as a kind of ‘Broad Left’ within Unite.
Stage one of Lyon’s efforts was a meeting held in late August, which he dishonestly presented as a ULS meeting.
Details about the meeting were sent from firstname.lastname@example.org (not the actual ULS e-mail address, but a close imitation). The e-mail was headed “United Left Scotland Meeting” and signed off as “United Left Scotland”.
Lyon did not inform elected ULS co-ordinators of his meeting. Other ULS activists were also left off the e-mail list used to publicise the meeting. But Scottish Unite full-timers certainly attended the meeting in numbers – at the behest of the Scottish Regional Secretary.
Stage two occurred in mid-November, when Lyon sent out an e-mail which proclaimed the existence of the Progressive United Left Scotland (PULS), proclaimed who the PULS candidates would be for the Scottish territorial seats in this year’s Executive Council (EC) elections, and proclaimed himself as elections co-ordinator.
This meant that two PULS candidates would be standing against the two ULS candidates who had been selected at a ULS meeting to contest the Scottish territorial seats. And one of the PULS candidates was not even a UL member.
(In fact, prior to some last-minute juggling by Lyon in his personal selection of the candidates, neither of the PULS candidates he had initially chosen were UL members.)
Stage three followed quickly on the heels of stage two. In late November Lyon circulated a splenetic e-mail on the national UL e-mail address list.
Longstanding ULS members were subjected to personalised abuse, the UL National Chair was denounced for a “deeply personal, vicious and unwarranted attack” on Lyon, the ULS was dismissed as an “oppressive and undemocratic body”, critics of PULS were scorned as “a few self-interested individuals”, and the outcome of ULS-PULS ‘negotiations’ was systematically misrepresented.
Ironically, among the spurious criticisms of the ULS most consistently raised by Lyon were his claims that it was undemocratic and suffered from a culture in which abuse and bullying were condoned.
And yet here was Lyon – in the absence of any meetings of PULS members (insofar as it has a membership in any meaningful sense of the word) – proclaiming the existence of a new organisation, announcing the names of its candidates for EC seats, and launching into a prolonged tirade of personal abuse against ULS and UL members.
In December Lyon sent the first of a series of e-mails publicising last Saturday’s meeting. As had been the case in August, Lyon excluded ULS co-ordinators and a layer of ULS activists from the list he used for all e-mails publicising the meeting.
(Lyon has yet to master the art of blind-copying e-mails. Who he deems worthy, and unworthy, of receipt of one of his e-mails is therefore visible to all.)
But what was the status of Saturday’s meeting?
Was it a PULS meeting? One e-mail publicising the meeting had the header “PULS National Slate and Campaign Materials” and was signed off as “PULS”. An eve-of-meeting e-mail also referred to “our PULS meeting tomorrow.”
Was it another sham ULS meeting? Lyon used the email@example.com address for most of his e-mails about the meeting. And in one e-mail Lyon had declared: “PULS is not a replacement for the ULS. It is the ULS.”
Or was it just a personal venture by Mark Lyon, not subject to any kind of accountability to any broader body? One e-mail publicising the meeting was simply signed off by “Mark” and sent from Lyon’s personal e-mail address.
Another question raised about the meeting was Lyon’s statement in one of his e-mails that the meeting would be attended by “the seven Executive Council candidates we [presumably: PULS] are jointly running in the forthcoming election.”
But who were these seven candidates which PULS was “jointly running”? (And jointly with whom?)
Lyon’s problem was that by the time of the meeting the full UL slate for this year’s EC elections had been published on the UL website.
The two candidates on the slate for the Scottish territorial seats are ULS members, not the PULS nominees. And there are six, not five, Unite members from Scotland listed on the slate as standing for various industrial seats.
Saturday’s 80-strong meeting was no larger than the meeting organised by Lyon in August. In fact, it may have been marginally smaller – despite the presence of an additional five Unite full-timers who had not attended the August meeting.
So much for Lyon’s claim in his splenetic e-mail of last November: “I am part of a group of about 150 people in Scotland and growing. … We grow daily in number and strength in our region.”
It was only towards the end of the meeting, when Lyon announced “our” seven Executive Council candidates, that the fiasco-in-waiting finally came to the surface. Fortunately, McCluskey had left the meeting by this point and was spared witnessing the debacle first-hand.
Lyon introduced “our” five Scottish candidates for various industrial seats on the EC. The sixth Scottish candidate – a member of the ULS, and an official UL candidate – was not asked to address the meeting. In fact, Lyon had not even invited him to the meeting.
Lyon then introduced “our” candidates for the Scottish territorial seats. They were the two PULS candidates whom he had personally selected in November – not the ULS members listed on the official UL slate (whom Lyon had likewise not invited to attend the meeting).
When it was pointed out from the floor that Lyon had failed to mention the ULS members standing for the Scottish territorial seats and officially recognised as UL candidates, Lyon curtly responded:
“You’re in the wrong meeting. They are not United Left candidates. We are supporting our candidates who have been democratically agreed. We are the United Left, we created the United Left, we’re not a different group.”
Lyon clearly thinks that he, rather than the UL, can decree who is a UL candidate. He likewise believes that he, rather than the UL, can decide what constitutes the UL. He even thinks that his own individual personal opinions amount to “democratic agreement”.
And his quip that “you’re in the wrong meeting” might have seemed very clever at the time (if only to Lyon himself). But it is a comment he will hopefully come to regret.
The person who, according to Lyon, was “in the wrong meeting” was an official UL candidate for a territorial seat on the EC. If that UL candidate was “in the wrong meeting”, then that tells you everything you need to know about the nature of Lyon’s meeting.
In fact, if anyone was “in the wrong meeting” – even if he exited it before Lyon’s plea to support non-UL candidates – then it was arguably the United Left’s own candidate in the General Secretary election, i.e. Len McCluskey himself.
The meeting which he used to launch his re-election campaign was one which denied a platform to three Scottish UL candidates, called for a vote for candidates standing against two UL candidates, and refused to call for a vote for a third UL candidate.
Although Lyon made a half-hearted attempt to present the meeting as a UL event, he deliberately withheld information about the meeting from ULS co-ordinators and activists.
And it was a meeting where the disproportionately large number of union full-timers in attendance – including Lyon himself – was at odds with McCluskey’s description of Unite as being primarily about “lay-member radical activism”.
To beat Coyne’s shameless campaign of right-wing anti-migrant populism, McCluskey needs to promote “lay-member radical activism”. But, thanks to Mark Lyon, he could not have chosen a worse event to launch his campaign than last Saturday’s meeting.