Serious leftists should vote for Len McCluskey in the Unite general secretary election for which voting begins on 27 March, because it’s a first-past-the-post poll, and without left-wing votes going to McCluskey there is a real risk Gerard Coyne will win.
Coyne is heavily backed by the Labour right wing around Tom Watson and Progress. If he wins, he will swing Unite decisively to the anti-Corbyn camp. That could close down all the openings for Labour revival opened by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victories.
Vote Coyne to help Watson and Progress get rid of Corbyn: that’s the deal.
In the 2013 general secretary election there was no right-wing candidate. In the 2010 poll the right-wing vote was split between two right-wing candidates. Their combined vote was only 16,000 less than the vote for McCluskey.
A good chunk of the 53,000 votes won in that ballot by supposed “left-winger” Jerry Hicks will have been by no means tightly anchored to the left. Many members who voted Hicks because they saw him as closer to the old AEU strand in Unite, or because they backed his promise to boost the role of retired members, or because they liked his complaint about “the relationship with Labour being put ahead of members’ interests” (Hicks’s words), may be seduced by a well-crafted Coyne campaign.
Coyne probably has a better “machine” behind him than Bayliss or Cartmail did in 2010. The media has already been much more aggressively anti-McCluskey than in previous elections (partly using ammunition which, it has to be said, McCluskey has handed to them on a plate).
If there were no difference between McCluskey and Coyne, then we could dismiss the “splitting the left vote” argument. But there is a real difference.
There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of McCluskey, and many on the left in Unite felt it was a great pity that he felt it necessary to stand again, for a third term. But McCluskey is right about one thing: Unite’s backing for Corbyn “in 2015… was a decision of our elected lay Executive Council, and in 2016 of our 600-strong Policy Conference, by a vast majority… Gerard Coyne’s campaign is not being driven by concern for Unite and its members’ interests. It is being scripted by the failed plotters in the Parliamentary Labour Party… in their political project to bring back Blairism”.
During his time in office McCluskey can rightly claim credit for the re-organisation of the union’s branch structures (replacing amorphous and often moribund geographical branches by workplace-based ones) and building the union’s Organising and Leverage Department.
He has presided over the development of Unite community branches, targeted at bringing community activists, the unemployed, and students into the trade union movement, and bringing trade union resources to bear in support of their campaigning.
McCluskey backed Corbyn in the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest, and did so again in 2016.
Leftwinger Ian Allinson is standing as “an experienced workplace activist”, “the grassroots socialist candidate”, and “the only candidate who knows first-hand the experiences and frustrations of our members”. By contrast, writes Allinson, Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne have both been “been paid officials of Unite for many years.” McCluskey stands for “more of the same” and Coyne stands for “turning the clock back”.
Allinson criticises the current Unite leadership for its failure to build a serious campaign against the Tories’ latest anti-union laws, its (alleged) shortcomings in a succession of industrial disputes, and its concessions to the ideology of “partnership” with employers. Allinson also unreservedly defends freedom of movement of labour, cites “increasing the participation and power of workers” as his “number one priority”, and has promised to remain on his current wage (i.e. not take the General Secretary salary of £130,000 a year).
Having Allinson in the race will be a good thing. It will mean that his arguments about Unite’s shortcomings under McCluskey and his alternative ideas about rank-and-file control will reach a much wider audience than just the branches which have nominated him.
That could help open up the debate about what a lay-member-led union would really look like and how it would function in practice — something which does not figure in either McCluskey’s or Coyne’s election material. So far, so good. But there are problems with Allinson’s election platform and campaign.
Allinson claims to be a better supporter of Corbyn than McCluskey. But Allinson is not even a Labour Party member and has made clear that he has no intention of joining. He advocates “extending Unite’s support for Jeremy Corbyn”, including “through Unite’s role in the Labour Party”. What that means is not spelt out. At a minimum, it must include encouraging more Unite members to join the party, which Allinson himself refuses to join.
Given Allinson’s defence of freedom of movement of labour, he ought to be critical of Corbyn (from the left): Corbyn has retreated from demanding access to the Single Market (and the freedom of movement which goes with it) and has backed the Tories’ Brexit Bill. But Allinson is silent about this. In fact, he does not seems to have ever spelt out own position on Brexit. (The group of which Allinson is a member, RS 21, took no position on the EU referendum — it was too divided internally to have done so.)
Allinson campaigns for a million “green jobs” to help protect the environment, as opposed to “costly and destructive vanity projects”. But he includes in those “vanity projects” Hinkley Point (although even George Monbiot sees a role for nuclear power) and HS2 (which could be developed into a much more environmentally friendly project). Allinson’s proposals for greater lay-member-control in Unite certainly provide a basis for discussion. But they lack a focus.
Alongside some specific demands, such as the ill thought-out ritual call for election of officers, there are vague proposals such as “fortnightly e-mail bulletins [from whom, about what?] to all activists, not filtered through officers and committees” and “involving members, officers and staff in a major review of Unite’s structures”. So officers should be by-passed when a fortnightly e-mail is sent out, but participate in a major review of Unite structures? Allinson “opposes the exclusion of Community and retired members from participation in Unite structures”. This smacks far more of Jerry-Hicks-style electioneering than a thought-through analysis of the role of Community and retired members’ branches. (In the 2010 and 2013 General Secretary elections Hicks ran shamelessly opportunist campaigns, to pick up both right and left votes. The most damning statement in Allinson’s election material is surely: “In previous Unite elections, Jerry Hicks, standing on a similar basis to me ….”)
In order to justify his own candidacy, Allinson refers to previous Unite General Secretary elections “when left challengers beat the right.” But 2013 was a straight clash between McCluskey and Hicks (i.e. no right-wing candidate, although Hicks certainly picked up votes from the ex-Amicus right). In 2010 Hicks came second to McCluskey — but only because two right-wing candidates split the right vote. And when Mark Serwotka beat Hugh Lanning to become PCS General Secretary in 2000, which Allinson also cites, it was a straight left-right clash.
Allinson is not always consistent in his critique of McCluskey and Coyne. McCluskey’s defeat and Coyne’s victory would be “a disaster for Unite,” writes Allinson. But he also argues that there is no real difference between them: “Far from my candidacy splitting the left vote, McCluskey and Coyne are splitting the establishment vote.” At the same time, Allinson declares that if he was not standing himself, he would vote for McCluskey: “There will be some members who will support me who would support McCluskey if there were no better option. I would be one of those members myself.”
In fact, the real problem confronting Allinson is a different one. Because there is a worse option (Coyne), members who would otherwise support Allinson, or at least be sympathetic to his ideas, are more likely to vote for McCluskey in a first-past-the-post poll. The shortcomings of Allinson’s campaign, especially in the context of the threat posed by Coyne, outweigh the case for voting for him. Even so, the argument at the core of Allinson’s campaign is the right one: for a member-led union in place of a bureaucracy-led union which pretends to be a member-led one. And that is a message which needs to be pursued beyond the current election campaign.