While Unite members face job losses and attacks on terms and conditions, General Secretary Len McCluskey and Head of the Legal Department Howard Beckett have a different priority: ensuring that the Beckett succeeds as General Secretary.
In May McCluskey proposed to the chair and secretary of the United Left (UL), the “Broad Left” in Unite, that they hold hustings to select the UL candidate for the next General Secretary election.
The UL has always functioned primarily as an election machine. But it got a low turnout in the 2017 General Secretary election and a miserable performance in the recent Unite Executive Council elections. It has increasingly functioned as a transmission belt for “decisions made in Holborn” (Unite HQ). On broader political issues (Cuba, Venezuela, Palestine, etc.) it takes its lead from the Morning Star.
The UL hustings and balloting, in mid-July, were a contest between Beckett and Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner.
Turner is an affable individual with an established trade-union record, though primarily one of being a union bureaucrat whose horizons have never escaped the limits of mainstream left-ish trade unionism.
Beckett lacks both affability and a trade-union record. He is a millionaire. In 2011 he and his partners sold their law firm for £2.6 million. As Head of the Unite Legal Department, he has squandered millions of members’ money on no-hope legal proceedings.
In public, McCluskey has maintained a stance of neutrality between Turner and Beckett. In reality, he has “groomed” Beckett to be his successor — giving him responsibility for selected industrial disputes, and a greater role in Unite-Labour Party affairs.
Turner won the UL ballot by 370 to 367 votes. The narrowness of the headline result is misleading.
Nearly two thirds of Beckett’s vote came solely from Scotland, where the “Progressive United Left Scotland” (PULS) — created by Unite full-timers in 2016 and run by them ever since — drummed up 237 votes for him.
Citing alleged procedural deficiencies, Beckett has refused to accept the result. His real reason for challenging the result is that he lost.
Beckett’s main public outlet for his campaign for a re-run is the Skwawkbox blog. Skawkbox “owes him one”. In recent legal proceedings involving ex-MP Anna Turley, Unite and Skwawkbox, Unite squandered money on Skwawkbox’s legal fees, and the Head of the Legal Department would have had a decisive say there.
Behind the scenes, McCluskey has been pressurising the UL into a re-run of the ballot.
A recent bizarre interview with the Observer was also an attempt to rally support for Beckett: What McCluskey proposed in the interview dovetailed into Beckett’s “sales pitch” for the General Secretary nomination.
To its credit, and for all its failings, the UL has refused to back down. Its National Co-ordinators’ Committee has twice endorsed the hustings result, with only the PULS delegates voting against.
But the overall result is a complete shambles.
Sharon Graham, head of the Organising Department, has declared that she will be standing for election and is rumoured to be using her staff to lay the groundwork for her campaign — hardly rank-and-file trade unionism!
Beckett still refuses to accept the ballot result and is plunging the UL (and not just the UL) into civil war. Turner, having been duly selected by the UL, is busy “raising his profile” as a preliminary to more overt campaigning.
And McCluskey himself — now 70 years old, and first elected in 2010 as a strictly “one-term-only” General Secretary — has now declared that he will be staying in office for his full term, until 2022. This is patently a manoeuvre to buy Beckett time to overturn the UL ballot result.
Unite now faces the destabilising and divisive prospect of prolonged electioneering in the absence of an election, cutting across the need for a unified response to the threatening jobs tsunami.
It would be far better to get the General Secretary election over and done with. An election right now would put candidates to the test: what are they actually doing to save jobs (as opposed to: what do they promise to do if elected).
An undemocratic rule change passed by last year’s Unite conference — which more than tripled the number of branch nominations needed to get on the ballot paper — makes it more difficult for a rank-and-file candidate to make it through to the final ballot.
But an intervention by a rank-and-file candidate in the form of seeking branch nominations, even if unsuccessful, could open up debate beyond the machine politics of the full-timer establishment and promoting basic ideas of class-struggle trade unionism.
Having created this shambles, McCluskey must go — now. He should announce at the next meeting of the Executive Committee that he is standing down, thereby triggering an election.