A victory for McCluskey will weaken the Labour right's ability to attack Corbyn, writes Richard Allday
The ballot forms have been posted out, and are now being returned, in the elections for General Secretary (GS) and Executive Council (EC) of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union. The outcome of this election will impact for many years, not on Unite only, nor even the trade union movement as a whole, but on British politics. The reason is that the rightwing contender (Gerard Coyne, Regional Secretary in the West Midlands) and his backers have made it quite clear that their aim is to end the anti-austerity stance of Unite, and by removing Len McCluskey (the incumbent GS), cut away a major source of support for Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Coyne claims that Unite under McCluskey has become too political, and that he intends to re-focus on the core purpose of a trade union – industrial affairs. As is so often the case with Coyne, the truth is the exact opposite. His is a deeply political campaign, backed by the inveterate conspirators on the Blairite wing of the Labour Party. Not only have the likes of Tom Watson and his cronies openly backed Coyne (including using the pages of the anti-union Sun newspaper) but they have made it quite clear that in the (unlikely) event of their man winning, they expect Unite to cut loose from Corbyn, and support the plotters and conspirers in returning the Labour Party to the complacent Tory-lite politicians who view it as little more than their ticket to the gravy train.
In the eyes of Coyne and his supporters, they would then be free to dissociate Unite from the social movements they so despise, and fear. They would seek to turn Unite back to ‘moderate’ trade unionism, a la Unison, with cosy chats with employers, sweetheart deals, and nothing to do with politics (except bankrolling the bankrupt policies of New Labour).
This is why the current election is important; either the rightwing Coyne wins, and seeks to reverse the gains of the last few years, or McCluskey wins, which would have two important consequences. First, it would weaken the Labour right’s ability to attack Corbyn, and second, it would boost the confidence of every activist who buys into the project of Unite as a member-led, fighting-back, organising union.
Which is why it is so frustrating to see a ‘rank and file candidate’ also standing against McCluskey. I use quotation marks since Ian Allinson has no rank and file base of support because, outside of construction, there is no rank and file organized in Unite. The unofficial construction workers group, rooted in the fight against the employers’ attempt to cut wages in the industry, has won Unite's support. And the group has firmly supported McCluskey who publicly supported their case during the BESNA campaign, and their campaign against the employers.
There should be no doubt that this is not a contest between left, centre and right as some describe it. McCluskey is under attack because of his connection with Corbyn and this is the basis on which the election is being fought. To pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the real divisions in the Labour movement today. A victory for McCluskey will be a slap in the face for, not only Coyne and his cronies, but for the right wing in the Labour Party, and the Tory proponents of austerity economics. Anything that weakens that mandate will be seized on by those groups. In this context, support for McCluskey and the left in the EC elections should be a no-brainer.
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'.
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