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Unite the union

Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Unite executive member Richard Allday writes (in a personal capacity) on the union’s general secretary election and the need for a united left

The future direction of Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union, is in the hands of its membership this year, as its current General Secretary, Len McCluskey, stands down and a new GS is elected.

Since its formation in 2010, as the result of the merger of Amicus and the TGWU, Unite has stood firmly on the left of the British trade union movement. McCluskey proved one of the most staunch supporters of the Corbyn project and, to his credit, has earned the hostility of the establishment and its apologists in the labour movement.

The coming electoral battle has significance well outside the ranks of Unite – a significance clearly understood by the media and the class whose interests they uphold. It worrying that much of the left in Unite does not share a similar assessment. We must take heed of the warning lights flashed up by the recent election in Unison, where a right wing candidate clambered over the squabbling bodies of a divided left to claim the prize.

Meet the candidates

There are four candidates so far declared in Unite. There is the disgraced ex-Regional Secretary of the West Midlands region, Gerard Coyne, accused of breaches of confidentiality, cronyism and bringing the union into disrepute. He was dismissed from his post on grounds of misconduct but, despite (because of?) this, is the chosen standard bearer for the Murdoch press.

His candidature would not be such a serious matter if it wasn’t for the disarray of the ‘left’ in Unite. Three candidates, each claiming to be from the left, have so far declared. The United Left in the union (the biggest organized force in the union, with a majority of the Executive coming from their supporters) looks increasingly likely to split three ways.

The Scottish region of the UL has already publicly declared its support for Howard Beckett, the charismatic lawyer who heads the union’s legal department. The North West Region looks likely to declare for Sharon Graham, the Executive Officer for the Organising and Leverage department of the union. The London and Eastern region (the biggest region by membership, and one of the largest regional groupings in the UL) is supporting Steve Turner, the Asst. General Secretary responsible for the Manufacturing Sector.

Each camp maintains the unique validity of their candidate to stand as the ‘left’ candidate. What is clear is that the left in the union is neither united, nor, in some cases, particularly left. It is ironic that the strongest criticism of the UL from some of its members over the past few years has been that it has become an electoral machine; that its original purpose, of fighting for a member-led, organising and fighting-back union has been lost in the insistent demand to win constitutional positions.

United Left

One of the perennial problems for an oppositional left in a trade union is that, in the first instance, it is driven by highly-motivated, principled activists, who take it for granted that their commitment is not career-friendly, that they are a burr under the saddle as far as the union bureaucracy is concerned. This was undoubtedly the case in both unions that merged to form Unite, until the early Noughties. From the election of Tony Woodley as GS in the T&G, and Derek Simpson in Amicus, the tide began to turn.

With the creation of Unite, the joint lefts in the merging unions co-operated to mount a very effective campaign to drive the constitutional structure of the new union towards lay democracy and lay member control. This fed into the victory of the new United Left in securing a decisive majority on the Executive of the new union. Unfortunately, with electoral success came the unwanted consequence that the UL now became the vehicle of choice for anyone seeking advancement in the union.

As the composition of the UL changed, so did its motive force. It became, in the eyes of many of its members, a vehicle for ensuring control of the machinery of the union, rather than that control being a consequence of winning arguments in the workplace.  Indeed, in some cases, there was an explicit reluctance to raise ‘unpopular’ arguments, in case it cost votes.

Consequently, it is now open to question whether the UL is capable any longer of mounting an effective campaign of industrial solidarity. If this is truly the case, the argument for its continued existence becomes questionable. It also raises doubts as to whether, even on their chosen ground of elections, the UL is capable of turning out the vote, or whether it has to a large extent become so divorced from the membership and the activist base of the union that it is a paper tiger.

McClusky’s vote declined from 144,570 (64.2%) in the 2013 general secretary election to 59,067 (45.5%) in the 2017 election. Gerard Coyne took over 41% of the votes in 2017. Turnout declined from 15.2% to 12.2% between 2013 and 2017.

The three-yearly elections to the union’s Executive Council, made up of members from the union’s 35 constituencies, have seen turnout falling from a high point of 10.9% in 2011 to 7.6% in 2020.

The figures raise the real fears of an increasingly disengaged membership. A small turnout, with the left vote divided, could be exactly what Coyne and his camp hope for. Not for them any worries if their candidate wins despite a majority of votes cast against them; Coyne’s commitment to lay democracy was not one of the characteristic features of his time as Regional Secretary of the West Midlands.

Unity is strength

The traditional view of socialists in the trade union movement has been based on the old adage ‘In Unity lies our Strength’. The left always tried to reach common agreement on a single candidate in elections – and the basis for deciding the candidate was on two premises: which candidate was most likely to mount the most effective challenge; and what was the minimum platform the left was prepared to accept.

The brutal reality is that the left, as a whole, wants to mount a successful campaign, but the measurement of success is a matter of contention.

The acid test for the ‘electoralist’ left was “What programme can win the widest support for our candidate”. The acid test for the ‘activist’ left was: “Which candidate can win the widest support for our programme?’

Unfortunately, the two candidates who bucked for the backing of the UL failed to offer a concrete platform (other than both promising to clip the wings of the Organising Department) round which activists could mobilise. It is still unclear what the decisive difference is between the two candidates – except that each is not the other one.

A third candidate has now declared from the left, and has stated her intention to publish her manifesto within the next few weeks. At least that should provide some clarity on the issues and principles at stake, and may provoke the other two into more concrete positions. But it still leaves us with the unhappy, and unnecessary, prospect of a divided left.

Open up the debate

One solution could be for the left to advance the argument for the election to be based on a Single Transferable Vote, and seek to convince the Executive (which is responsible for laying down the ground rules for the election process) to adopt this approach. This would almost certainly put a spoke in Coyne’s wheel, as there is little indication of any wide-spread support for his vision of a top-down, service model for the union; his supporters would be unlikely to transfer to any left candidate; and conversely, there would be little traffic the other way.

This is unlikely to happen, however, as the last Rules Conference of the union discussed precisely this issue and voted decisively to stick with the ‘first past the post’ model. The Executive Council is unlikely to agree to overturn the democratic decision of an elected conference.

A better solution would be for the supporters of all three ‘left’ candidates to call for a grand meeting of all activists and reps in the union (a far easier task now, with Zoom being so widely used) to convene, listen to the candidates’ pitches, debate and then vote. When I say the invitation should be extended to all reps and activists, I mean precisely that: any member who is sufficiently motivated to attend the meeting should be entitled to express their preference. It should not be limited to pre-determined supporters of any faction, for two reasons.

Firstly, limiting it to the already existing factions would only entrench current divisions when what is desperately needed is to try to overcome them. Secondly, any candidate who restricts their appeal to the mindset of already existing supporters, and who cannot demonstrate an ability to bring the wider membership on board, is not an effective contender anyway.

This would be a useful step forward in agreeing a single left candidate and in asserting the left’s arguments among the union’s activists. 

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Richard Allday

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'.

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