McClusky’s victory is an endorsement of the strategy for a fighting union by Unite activists, but the 15% turnout shows the need to win this strategy with the wider membership

Len McCluskeyThe re-election of Len McCluskey as General Secretary of Britain’s biggest union (Unite) sends a welcome message to all the Thatcher-worshippers who hoped that their necrophiliac death-fest could provide a Frankenstein-style shot in the arm to the zombie-capitalist coalition of bankers, Bullingdon boys and backwoodsmen.

The resounding victory of McCluskey is a clear endorsement of Unite’s policy of opposition to austerity on the political and economic, as well as the industrial front.

However, there are causes for caution as well as celebration in this result. On the plus side is the fact that with a total turnout very similar to his original victory in 2010, McCluskey increased his vote substantially. However, so did his opponent, Jerry Hicks, in what was this time a two-horse race.

2010 2013
McCluskey 101,000 McCluskey 144,570
Hicks 52,000 Hicks 79,819
Bayliss 46,000
Cartmail 39,000

How to interpret these figures is necessarily speculative (and the interpretation, not surprisingly, will vary according to which candidate you supported), but I would be amazed if more than a handful of Bayliss supporters last time round would have voted for McCluskey this time – the difference between LM’s vision of a fighting-back union and “Business” Bayliss’ espousal of “moderate realism” (read “fawning surrender”) was too fundamental to believe much of his support would transfer to McCluskey under almost any circumstance.

Given Gail Cartmail’s endorsement of McCluskey this time, it is not unreasonable to suppose her supporters voted likewise, accounting for the bulk of McCluskey’s increased vote. If this is so, it is a very welcome sign that the vast bulk of engaged activists (and the officer cadre) are fully signed up to the industrial re-organisation, and industrial democracy that were key components of McCluskey’s platform.

But how to read the significant increase in Jerry Hicks’ vote? It would be churlish to suggest he picked up the pro-Bayliss “anyone but Len” vote, but given the largely apolitical, and populist tone of his campaign it is not unreasonable to suggest that his vote comprised an unstable (and unhealthy) amalgam of knee-jerk support for his appeal to “rank and filism”, coupled with his blatant wooing of those members (and officers) unhappy with the reorganisation of the union on industrial lines.

To make the continual claims that if he won, it would mean an end to “appointment” of officials, and they would all be elected means either he is unaware of the union’s rulebook, or would be happy to over-ride it – it is the function of conference to decide the method the union employs to appoint officers; at present that responsibility is delegated to the (elected) executive council. It is not in the gift of the General Secretary (GS).

Likewise with Jerry’s two other key campaigning points – money to the Labour Party and “unofficial” industrial action. Both of these are inscribed in the union’s constitution, and will require a majority of (elected) delegates to a union conference to change.

It may sound radical to claim you will change these if elected, but it ducks the hard business of winning the arguments among reps and activists. As a lorry driver for nearly 30 years, I have learnt the hard way that “shortcuts” do not always get you where you want to be.

So also with his “promise” to only accept a “worker’s wage”, it is a good sound-bite, until you start to unpick it . The very definition of an “average wage” means there will be members earning more than, as well as others on less than, the average – and in most cases the better wages are achieved in the best organised sections of our membership. Is he seriously suggesting tanker drivers, IT technicians, toolmakers at Fords or GM, – or electricians – should lose money to lead our union? Or is this just a cheap populist stunt to attract votes on the basis of an ill-thought-out and unworkable “dog-whistle” slogan?

The reality is that Jerry has a hard-earned, and well-deserved, reputation among some members for implacable opposition to the Simpson regime in Amicus, coupled with a resolute support for activists in construction when they were engaged in bitter struggle with construction bosses, and suffering from an abject failure of leadership from the senior full-time officers in that industrial sector.

The fact that time has moved on, that Unite is not Amicus Mk2, (and certainly not the EETPU) is certainly welcomed by activists in construction but there is little doubt that their respect for Jerry’s past stance led to a sympathetic hearing this time round.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that rather than accepting the world has changed, Jerry preferred to stand where he has always stood – as the champion of the union’s rank and file, and that he was encouraged in this by those on the left who should have known better. The harsh reality is that, after standing in 3 elections, and garnering tens of thousands of votes on a platform of “organising the rank and file”, he and his supporters have built no organisation on the ground, other than that which comes to life during General Secretary elections – and that renders their criticisms of the United Left in the union somewhat hollow, if not hypocritical.

More importantly, his regularly repeated statement that he supported the industrial re-organisation of the union, but that if elected, he would ensure that no member was transferred out of their existing branch without their prior agreement was contradictory, and could only mean the right of veto for those who opposed the re-organisation he and his left supporters claimed to support.

Whilst appearing to support the right of individual members, in practice this could only benefit those sections of Unite implacably opposed to the (democratically decided) policy of re-organising the union on industrial lines – essential if the vision of a member-led fighting back union (that Jerry undoubtedly wants) is to be possible.

There is little doubt in my mind (and this is reinforced by the proportion of composite branches who nominated him) that Jerry’s vote was a mixture of naïve leftists and intransigent opponents of any attempt to shift the union onto the lines of real industrial organisation for fear they will lose their sinecures.

If there is one lesson for the left in the union on which we can all agree, it is this: that although we now have a healthy and unequivocal endorsement of the strategy for building a fighting back union among the engaged activists in the union, the turnout was only about 1 in 6 of the membership. The task now facing all of us is to drive this strategy deep into the mind-set of the membership at large.

A useful first step would be to fight to make the upcoming People’s Assembly against Austerity as big and representative as possible – and that means fighting for delegations from every union branch, to ensure that McCluskey’s vision of a mass, broad and inclusive coalition of resistance to the government’s austerity plans sinks its roots as deep as possible in the organised labour movement.

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'.