Tom Watson giving his Deputy Leader of the Labour Party speech at the 2016 Party Conference in Liverpool. Photo: Wikimedia/Rwendland Tom Watson giving his Deputy Leader of the Labour Party speech at the 2016 Party Conference in Liverpool. Photo: Wikimedia/Rwendland

As Parliamentary Labour Party poison continues to infect the movement, our side must resist with clarity and commitment, asserts Richard Allday

The Observer newspaper ran a non-story at the weekend, in a clear attempt to influence the elections currently taking place in Unite, Britain’s largest trade union. It was then taken up by its stablemate, the Guardian, where the final sentence of the story makes it crystal clear the intention is to interfere in the union’s democratic process.

The story rests on the alleged comments of a person who holds no official position in Unite, to a private meeting of members of an organization which has no official relationship with Unite, regarding his personal hopes for the future Labour Party.

Biased reporting

This is then presented by the Observer as a plot for Unite to ‘seize control of Labour’. There was a time when journalists were expected to approach persons named in a story, to get their response.

So here are a few questions and considerations the Guardian Media Group should address:

  • Why was there no attempt to get McCluskey’s views on this story?
  • Why was there no attempt to get Jeremy Corbyn’s view on this story?
  • The General Secretary of Unite does not possess the power to affiliate the union to anything; not Momentum, not Stalybridge Football Club, not the Kensington Choral Society. This power is reserved to the elected lay members of Unite’s Executive Council.
  • Why was the Chair of the Executive (the only body that can have an effective view on this) not approached by the paper?
  • Why did the papers find the time to approach the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (the arch anti-Corbyn conspirator Tom Watson) to get his take, while not bothering to approach the actual Leader?
  • Why did the papers find the time to approach Gerard Coyne, the unelected Regional Secretary who is standing against McCluskey, but not McCluskey himself?

The answer surely is that would not serve the purpose of the anti-Corbyn lobby to inject a note of realism into this. They would rather a fetid atmosphere of smear and innuendo.

In this they are ably assisted by Jess Phillips MP, who was so excited to be asked to join the smear fest that she got her argument back-to-front. According to the Guardian, she stated she “would quit the union unless it made it clear it would not accept affiliation from Momentum”. The opposite is true but trade union affiliations may be new to Jess Phillips.

The 1.5 million members of Unite are engaged in a democratic process that will help decide the direction of travel of Britain’s largest union for the next 5 years.

The incumbent General Secretary, Len McCluskey, is standing for a further five year term. He is opposed by the Regional Secretary of the West Midlands.

Organise or compromise

McCluskey has been an outspoken critic of the politics of austerity ever since he took office in 2010. McCluskey and Unite have been staunch supporters of the People’s Assembly movement, which has helped organise the biggest anti-cuts mobilisations in Britain. He spoke from the platform at the massive demonstration in support of the NHS two weeks ago, along with Jeremy Corbyn. He is cordially loathed by the hand-wringing liberals of the Guardian Media Group ciabatta club.

He is seen by many as the industrial equivalent of Corbynism – an insistence that there is a better way of doing things than just accepting the status quo, and that our fundamental strength lies in ordinary working people taking their own decisions.

His opponent in the General Secretary election, Gerard Coyne, claims that he represents the ‘moderate’ and ‘realist’ face of modern trade unionism, and if elected, he will concentrate on industrial matters, not politics. His central criticism of McCluskey is that McCluskey spends too much time interfering in Westminster politics and not enough on the workplace.

His criticisms are a trifle undermined by his record: the Regional Secretary of the West Midlands, he failed to command the support of the leading activists in the biggest workplace in his region. The workplace reps and branch activists in Jaguar Land Rover overwhelmingly preferred to nominate McCluskey for GS.

In matters of industrial competence his star doesn’t shine too brightly either: the latest figures compiled by Unite show the figures for recruitment of new members broken down by region. The West Midlands is stuck in mid-table. Not stuck in a relegation battle, but a long way from leading the pack. This might explain why he acquired the nickname ‘Counterfeit’ Coyne – in the words of one activist, “you can’t take him at face value”.

Incidentally, in the three highest scoring regions, the Regional Committees overwhelmingly back McCluskey. Perhaps they prefer backing a candidate who delivers, rather than one who pontificates?

In fact, his campaign has been marked by a complete absence of industrial strategy. And the further he falls behind in winning support, the more he has relied on smear as strategy. It is sad, but no surprise, that the press have decided he needs a leg-up and pulled out the ‘nobble the lefty’ strategy.

Establishment candidate preferred

The election is not just about whether Unite continues as a union that supports an organising agenda, or whether it reverts to the discredited model of ‘service unionism’. It is about whether the establishment can take out a prime supporter of the anti-establishment politics represented by Corbyn and McDonnell, thus weakening their support, and improving the chances of a successful coup supported by the likes of Tom Watson, Jess Phillips, Jack Dromey etc.

No surprise then, that all three should be courted so assiduously by the ‘anti-politics’ Gerard Coyne.  No surprise either, that the hand-wringing liberals of the Observer/Guardian should align themselves so clearly with a candidate who promises ‘compromise rather than conflict’.

The two faces of the liberal press

After all, they have a track record of crying crocodile tears over exploitation and oppression, whilst firmly condemning any collective action that may be effective. Witness their outrage at the ‘scandal of zero-hours Britain’, and their ‘exposure’ of Sports Direct and then consider: the Guardian employs over 100 journalists on zero hours contracts – who are then forced to take regular unpaid breaks, to prevent them getting in two years’ service  – because otherwise they would acquire statutory employment rights.

Or again: the Guardian front page last weekend, fulminating over the DPD couriers forced to pay the company ‘compensation’ for days off sick – and then remember the Guardian last year imposed a new contract on its photographers whereby if the paper has no work for them on a given day, the photographer has to work an extra day unpaid, or pay the company compensation.

Then you begin to see that the Guardian may have a material interest in wanting house-trained TU General Secretaries, rather than effective ones. Just as the class they represent has a political interest in derailing any threat to the established order in Westminster.  

Jeremy Corbyn is the most mandated Labour leader of modern times. If this shower stopped trying to destabilise him and put a fraction of that effort into attacking the Tories, the present political climate would be very different. None of this will be forgotten. In the meantime, our task is to keep the anger on the streets and in the picket lines, and – crucially – maintain a movement that supports and disciplines the very best of our leaders.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.