Unite the Union: Whither the United Left?

July 3, 2017 at 9:46 pm (democracy, elections, left, posted by JD, reformism, Unite the union, workers)

Len McCluskey Len McCluskey  Credit: RUSSELL CHEYNE

This article was written immediately after the re-election of Len McCluskey, and before the general election. It has been published on the United Left (UL) website, and Shiraz has held back from publishing it (until now) on the hope that some serious debate would be generated within the UL: that hasn’t happened, so we publish it now in the hope that it will stimulate a debate amongst serious left wing members of Unite: 

WHITHER THE UL?
By Jim Kelly, Chair London & Eastern United Left

Len touched on the need for organisational change at the last UL AGM in Birmingham. An AGM immediately after returning an incumbent UL GS and majority EC would usually be expected to be well attended and vibrant, especially with the GS speaking. The Birmingham meeting certainly did not meet those criteria. Indeed, in my view it fell well short of expectations and continued a decline in both regional & national officers and industrial based activists which has been noticeable for some time

An election wash up meeting organised in L&E shortly after became a forum for a wide-ranging discussion; one which I think is long overdue and continued the discussion first started by Len in Birmingham. Essentially; whither the UL.

This is not a report of the London meeting rather it puts forward my views on some of the key points raised during that discussion. As I was putting this note together I was struck by the fact how little discussion there is within the UL about what we should be doing and what are our limits.  I hope those who attended the London meeting as well as others from around the country will participate in this discussion.  It is only through discussing and clarifying our ideas in the light of experience we will be able to move forward.

Also, there seems to be a distinct lack of vision or strategy or priorities over the next 5 years. For a third time, we have re-elected a left GS, yet how the UL relationship with the GS evolves in his final term will be critical if we are to continue to rebuild a fighting back union in the UK & Ireland.

I understand that many activists are now focused on the return of a Labour government, but there seemed a clear void before May’s announcement of her cut & run general election & Len’s and the left’s victory.

Understanding the GS election
Self-evidently all were happy with the Len’s victory however there were divergent views on interpreting it. Some saw this as a victory in the face of press hostility and Coyne’s vile campaign.  Both true, but the voting figures tell a slightly different story.  Prior to the results the consensus was the left vote would remain static and for Coyne to win his social media campaign would have to mobilise members who don’t usually vote.

This did not happen; Coyne, despite the vast sums of money poured into his campaign, failed to mobilise these layers, it would seem those voting were the traditional voters. It is likely Coyne won the craft vote and McCluskey the rest. (We have no way of knowing why we lost 80,000 plus votes and there seems little point in speculating).  If you want to put our 12% turnout into perspective in 1985 Ron Todd become T&G General Secretary on a 41% turnout.

A simplistic view which blames the right-wing press obscures not only the reality of the numbers voting but fails to place this vote as part of the broader malaise the Left faces. I think this was rightly described in our meeting as a disconnect between activists and members. Yet when some comrades pushed this point I noted that many, probably a majority, did not wish to face up to this.
Yet where else is there to start? Consider this; our Region, like many others, obtained more nominations then ever for Len – nearly all the major workplaces. What else can this tell us than the existence of a disjuncture between activists and members?

The UL: what it is, its limits and what it can become
While we should be pleased about our record as an electoral machine, the question which rightly came to dominate the meeting was can the UL be anything more than an electoral machine? If it can, what else can we do? It seems to me this is the central question which we should be debating in finding our way forward. This is not an easy question to answer and for me the meeting illustrated this, while nearly everyone had a view little light was shed on the matter.

The most coherent attempt came from many comrades who, however gently attempted to shift the UL focus towards a rank and file-ism. Whether a R&F movement / shop steward movement is possible, the UL cannot possibly undertake such a function.  At a minimum, such organisations goal is to hold the union bureaucracy to account, and to get the union to undertake a militant industrial programme.
While the UL can advise & criticise the bureaucracy, it cannot replace it nor hold it to account in the manner put forward, as the UL already runs the bureaucracy and large numbers of UL members are part of the bureaucracy; including of course the GS.  This plays out on a practical level, as one of differentiation illustrated by the LE Region; it is a left-wing region, it supports all strikes and we want to promote members involvement in the Region so the question becomes how can the UL differentiate itself from the Region? The best the meeting could come up with was a banner on picket lines!

Others at the meeting proposed the UL should promote a political programme, a view which fails to take account of who constitutes the UL. What gives many organisations like the UL a political coherence is when they are dominated by a political grouping, for example in the 70s the SWP ran many R&F organisations (I was a member of one of these) while the CP controlled the union Broad lefts.
In each case the R&F / broad left group is where a Party recruits from and projects its ideas into the wider movement. Today we can see a similar relationship between the SP and TUSC. It should be clear that the UL is not dominated by any political grouping consequently it cannot have a coherent political programme.
Again, we can see this practically; at present the UL is largely united around support for the LP yet post-election, if Labour loses and Corbyn goes, I am sure some of the new converts may be off on a new adventure and many others in the UL will be again calling for Unite to disaffiliate. The UL may once again be consumed with a debate about the LP / new Party.

A further consequence of our lack of a political programme makes us extremely vulnerable to being used, and we can see this in two very different ways. First there are those individuals who join the UL to progress within the union. For example, over the last month I have been approach by a few people who have recently got involved in the UL demanding we support them in becoming prospective parliamentary candidates, these people had no track record in the movement and had just joined the UL. Personally, I am disappointed, but not surprised, at this type of behaviour, but I recognise we have no rules which can stop such people signing up.

A different type of problem we face are those who decide to leave the UL for example the Allinson group and after standing against may well want to be readmitted. The cynical & opportunist attacks on our left by BASSA/Unite Alliance are one more example, in my view these types of people should not be tolerated or allowed back in, but need to be vigorously opposed.

But there was another type of activist, genuinely frustrated with the record of EC UL incumbents, who stood as individual Left candidates. This raises the issue of sitting EC delegates not being opposed at reselection.

I am now firmly of the view that if a sitting EC/UL delegate has done a good job they have nothing to fear by being part of a reselection process.

When we turn to the EC elections we need to abandon the present policy. The hustings in a few cases also turned into who could simply bus in the most supporters on the day. I am unsure if there is a better forum for democratic choice, but it’s clear we could tighten up in many areas.

The above then may provide some boundaries which we cannot cross, however we can focus on taking on the disjuncture between Left activists and members. We only have one way of doing this and that is through UL supporters talking to members – UL activists need to become propagandists for Unite the left union.

Boring meetings
Another issue raised at our meeting was the perennial problem of the boring nature of UL meetings, (some comrades raising this may want to reflect on their contribution to this problem). I am not alone in having had to chair meetings where a small group often can be like broken gramophone records, repeating choreographed mantras, and raising issues which many industrial activists do not instantly relate to. This can often be one reason many good industrial activists fail to be energised and do not return.

At a time when some branches struggle to raise a quorum for monthly or even quarterly meetings; when the best attended meetings are usually linked into action in the workplace or against an employer, what would motivate hard working activists to attend a regular UL meeting, if many do not see the need or importance of attending their own branch meetings on a regular basis?

It is also clear that many UL supporters attending both national or regional meetings see the UL meeting as a substitute branch meeting. If UL meetings are to help develop a new cadre of activists perhaps our meetings should be based on sectors or other industrial criteria, such as the ideas developing around a UL Bus workers group in L&E?

Already UL activists on the buses in London are developing this, the main aim of which is to reach out to new activists, some of whom will not hold union positions. Industrial issues are being promoted in tandem by UL supporters to address issues facing bus workers in TfL.  Issues, such as industrial action and solidarity work may be better prioritised at this type of meeting, maintaining interest levels and more regular attendance. This may also help to isolate any careerist element.

Our committees are reconstituted from June 2018. This type of new periphery needs to be encouraged to become UL supporters, activists and leaders. The UL can make a turn to propagandising in the workplace around the values and ideals of a left union, and in doing so our activists can be developed into workplace leaders. Undertaking this in a consistent and systematic manner will see us begin to address the gap between activists and members. For some this task may seem trivial or an irrelevant matter, however I would argue far from being trivial challenging the disconnect between activists and members is our central task and for those who don’t wish to see this, I would point them again to our election result.

In the short term, we also have sector conferences in November and a policy conference in July 2018 to focus on. Calls for motions for conference should be circulating at the end of the year.

In the medium term unless we make a shift back to our industrial base the issue of who the next UL GS candidate is may be academic.

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