Coyne supporters ‘expose’ McCluskey’s ‘skeletons in the cupboard’
By Anne Field
Ballot papers for Unite the Union’s General Secretary and national Executive Council elections have now been sent out to the union’s 1.4 million members.
West Midlands Unite full-timer Gerard Coyne is the right-wing challenger to Len McCluskey, the incumbent General Secretary seeking re-election for a third time. Ian Allinson is also standing as the candidate of rank-and-file democracy.
The basis of Coyne’s campaign is to make right-wing appeals to disengaged members of Unite. Apart from a promise to freeze union dues for two years, Coyne is standing for election on a largely policies-free platform. The vacuum is filled by mud-slinging.
Coyne has homed in on Unite putting over £400,000 into a share equity deal which enabled McCluskey to buy a £700,000 London flat. Coyne’s conclusion: “The man who talks about greedy bosses is a greedy boss himself.”
Another of Coyne’s targets is the £75,000 which Unite lent to Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 Labour Party leadership campaign, and subsequently wrote off as a donation. Coyne’s response: “I’ll focus on saving the jobs of our members, not the job of the leader of the Labour Party.”
More recently, Coyne teamed up with Tom Watson to portray McCluskey as being in cahoots with Momentum in a plot to take over the Labour Party. Coyne’s criticism: “Unite members’ money should not be used to prop up the ultra-left. This is not what trade unions are for.”
Coyne’s strategy is to portray McCluskey as being engrossed in Labour Party politics and out of touch with ordinary Unite members: “Luxury flat loans and propping up the hard left: McCluskey is losing touch with Unite members.”
According to Coyne, “Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn are yesterday’s men.” A victory for Coyne would be a chance for Unite members to “take back control” of their union.
Coyne’s campaigning methods have corresponded to the substance, or lack of substance, of his campaign. He is not interested in arguing with McCluskey and winning over his supporters. His target is the most passive and inactive layers of Unite’s membership.
In early March Coyne’s supporters staged a publicity stunt by lobbying a meeting of Unite’s Executive Council at the union’s head office, wearing skeleton masks and carrying model skeletons. (Theme: McCluskey’s skeletons in the cupboard.)
In mid-March his campaign mailed copies of a freebie broadsheet entitled Unite Herald to all Unite branches. The broadsheet covered the usual ground and appealed to members to “give McCluskey the two-fingered salute” by voting for Coyne.
In late March Coyne was given space in the Sun, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express to attack McCluskey and promote his own campaign:
“McCluskey is obsessed with Westminster power games rather than looking after the real needs of Unite’s members. A low turnout (in the election) would suit Len and his supporters. But if the majority of Unite members vote, his time at the top is over. Unite is not the private property of Len McCluskey and friends.”
The response of McCluskey’s campaign to Coyne’s attacks underlines its limitations: McCluskey is relying first and foremost on the Unite apparatus and the United Left election machine, rather than on political argument and membership engagement, to turn out the vote for him.
Coyne’s alliance with the right wing of the Labour Party has not been used by McCluskey as an opportunity to open up a political debate among the Unite membership about implementation of the union’s own political strategy.
Instead, McCluskey’s response has been to argue that a political strategy plays no role in his campaign and that his only concern is members’ bread-and-butter issues. His supporters boast that just 3% of his tweets have mentioned politics.
When Coyne’s Unite Herald was sent to branches, Unite Acting General Secretary Gail Cartmail wrote to branch secretaries warning them that they could be “exposed to legal proceedings for defamation” and also disciplined under the union’s Rulebook if they distributed the broadsheet to their members.
Coyne was (rightly) denounced for having written for the Sun – above all in a widely circulated article published in the Morning Star: “Collaborating with Murdoch is a taint that never fades”.
So, writing for the Sun is an irremovable stain. But writing for a paper which acts as an apologist for Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, left anti-semitism, Brexit, attacks on freedom of movement of labour, and anti-Trotskyist witch-hunts in the Labour Party is an honour and a privilege.
(Coyne doesn’t care about the opprobrium heaped on him for having written for the Sun. Metaphorially and literally, it is the readership of the Sun which is his target audience.)
In many ways such examples sum up McCluskey’s campaign: based on a bureaucratic machine, averse to a real debate among the membership, and ‘left wing’ only insofar as the politics of the Morning Star can be deemed to represent what counts as ‘left politics’.
Despite lacking the vast resources which Coyne and McCluskey have at their disposal, Ian Allinson secured enough nominations to be included on the ballot papers which have just been sent out. This is no small achievement in itself.
But while his campaign has challenged McCluskey from the left and raised basic ideas about what a lay-member-led union – in which full-timers are properly accountable to the membership – would look like, his campaign has not really ‘taken off’.
It also suffers from three basic problems:
He has not suceeded in defeating the argument that his campaign will achieve no more than taking votes way from McCluskey, thereby increasing Coyne’s chances of winning. But Allinson himslef accepts that a victory for Coyne would be a disaster.
Nor has he suceeded in defeating the argument that his boast of being more pro-Corbyn than McCluskey himself is incoherent – given that he is not a Labour Party member himself and refuses to even attempt to join the Labour Party.
In fact, Allinson’s support for Corbyn amounts to a particularly crude version of Corbyn-cultism. It is not part of any strategy for transforming the Labour Party. And it defines what the Labour Party is in terms of who its leader is at any particular moment in time.
Allinson also makes support for freedom of movement a major feature of his election campaign. But he is also reported to have tweeted in January: “I wasn’t in Lexit campaign. Did vote out. Most arguments on both sides rotten. Key issues now workers rights & movement.”
Allinson’s current position therefore amounts to defending migrant rights which are under attack as a result of the course of action which he supported last June.
(The tweet is no longer visible in his account. If reports of the tweet are inaccurate, Allinson can correct them and clarify the position which he took in last June’s referendum.)
Unite members should vote for McCluskey. But that is no more than the first stage of the campaign needed to transform Unite into an organisation capable of promoting its members interests both industrially and politically.