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Unite the union logo

Unite the union logo. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Don’t underestimate what would change in the labour movement if Gerard Coyne led Unite the Union, warns John Rees

There is an argument gathering support in some corners of the labour movement about the Unite general secretary election which runs something like this: it doesn’t matter if there are multiple left candidates running against right winger Gerard Coyne because it won’t be that bad even if he wins as a result of a split left vote.

This is sometimes bolstered by the observation that Unite will still have a left dominated executive and so Coyne’s ability to do damage will be hamstrung.

This is a very serious underestimate of what is likely to happen if a divided left hands Coyne the union’s top job.

To start with the unspoken assumption seems to be that Coyne is right wing in the sense that the recently retired general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, was right wing. A sort of moderately unpleasant centrist.

But this is not true. Coyne is likely to be much closer to the kind of right wing once represented by Frank Chapple and Eric Hammond, the old anti-communist leaders of the electricians union, the EEPTU. Hammond was the leader that did a deal with Rupert Murdoch to break the print unions at Wapping. That’s the kind of right wing we’ve not seen in the unions for a generation. But it would be back with Coyne.

In Labour Party terms, Coyne is closest to a Tom Watson type of unreconstructed, right wing social democrat. A bruiser whose defining politics are hatred of the left.

We can expect that the ‘democracy review’ that Coyne is promising will strip out key democratic processes and be aimed at eradicating a functioning left. All the Labour right’s playbook of using left wing issues to undermine the left will be in evidence. Coyne has already called for one of his rivals, Howard Beckett, to be disciplined for racism after Beckett tweeted that Priti Patel, not refugees, should be deported. 

So where might the Coyne axe fall? 

Unite Community, the union’s brave effort to engage workers not in traditional, well-organised workplaces would come under Coyne’s scrutiny, not least because its seen as a bastion of the left.

The current leadership’s cherished record of never repudiating a dispute would be an early casualty, leaving workers under the cosh of official sanction before they could even think of taking action.

Leverage campaigns deploying political pressure to weaken employers would be very unfavourably regarded by a Coyne leadership. 

Support for social movements against austerity, racism, in protest at the Grenfell fire, in favour of the NHS, for Palestine, or against war would get neither the political or financial support that they have had from the current leadership of Unite.

In the Labour Party, the right wing would have a mighty ally in Gerard Coyne. And by right wing in this context we are not simply looking at Starmer, built at the Wes Streeting/Margaret Hodge type of right wing.

And the impact of a Coyne victory would not be limited to Unite or to the Labour Party. Right across the labour movement and the social movements the atmosphere will be more hostile to progressive politics than it has been since before the election of the original cohort of ‘awkward squad’ left union leaders at the start of this century.

The general secretary in Unite has enormous discretionary power, and very considerable influence. And Coyne does have a serious base. All this will be mobilised to witch-hunt and isolate  the left and to gain a majority on the executive to complete right wing control.

So the attitude on the left of ‘[insert name of preferred candidate] or Bust’ is a disaster because Bust is the likely outcome and the Bust will be considerable and long lasting.

The left can win, but only if it unites behind a single candidate. All the left candidates have strengths, but it was actually Steve Turner who gained by far the most nominations and is best placed to beat Coyne. He also has nominations from some of the largest branches, despite false claims to the contrary. 

Nor is the belated argument that the number of nominations is irrelevant very convincing. During the nomination period every candidate was celebrating in public every time their nominations increased. No one said ‘oh, I’m over the 174 line so don’t worry with any more nominations’. All their social media accounts were boasting as their nominations rose over 100, over 200, over 300. All would have been happier still if they had over 500, as Steve Turner does.

So, imperfect as it is, the number of nominations is the only objective measure of support we have. Let’s stop pretending it is a matter of no importance if Coyne wins, that’s just self serving, dangerous, and light minded. Let’s get on with fighting for a single left candidate to defeat Coyne and all he stands for.

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John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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