This year, 2021, will see an election for the replacement of Len McCluskey as General Secretary of the big cross-sector union Unite. And now union right-winger Gerard Coyne, the runner-up in the last general secretary election, in 2017, has declared his wish to stand.
We don't yet know the detailed schedule. Sadly, jockeying for position, armtwisting, backroom deals, backstabbing, slanders and the outright lies are already in full flow.
McCluskey’s favoured successor is Howard Beckett. In his capacity as head of the union’s Legal Department he has squandered vast amounts of members’ money on no-hope cases in which the issue at stake was not workers’ rights but the "good name" of Unite and its leaders.
Beckett sought the support of the United Left, the Broad Left in Unite - which largely functions as an election machine, and less effectively of late – for his leadership bid. In last summer’s hustings Beckett lost to Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner by three votes.
Under United Left rules, anyone who stands in hustings for its endorsement must agree in advance to abide by the outcome. Beckett gave that commitment, but has refused to accept the result, spuriously claiming voting “irregularities”.
Beckett’s denunciations of the election result were backed by the so-called Progressive United Left Scotland (PULS), which split from the United Left Scottish Region over four years ago. The national United Left has now deemed PULS to have “placed itself outside of” the United Left because of its support for Beckett.
A new organisation, Unite Unity Left, has been launched, in direct competition with the United Left. Its main purpose is to campaign for Beckett’s bid to be elected General Secretary.
Beckett’s electoral strategy is to shout a lot, presumably in the hope that Unite members will equate such behaviour with passion and principles. But Beckett's record indicates few principles.
The official United Left candidate is Steve Turner. Turner is a blander and less abrasive figure. The basis of has election campaign and his vision for Unite have yet to be announced.
Sharon Graham, head of the Unite Organising Department, has thrown her hat into the ring, and has launched another new group, Workers Unite, as her election vehicle.
It describes itself as having been “set up by a broad base of Unite shops stewards and reps” and as welcoming “all Unite members, shop stewards, reps, officers, staff”.
To me it looks more like a creation of Graham’s Organising Department staff. In recent months they have been busy lobbying Unite shop stewards and reps to support Graham’s campaign.
Unfairly, Graham has been criticised as the candidate of the right wing. But there is a real problem with Graham’s slogans such as “Let’s get back to the workplace” and “a union that will move beyond internal Labour Party politics.”
In the abstract, they might seem to make sense. In fact, they are code for political retreat and a turn inwards.
In recent years Unite has attempted to extend trade unionism beyond the workplace (e.g. Community branches and community campaigning). And it has intervened in "internal Labour Party politics". It has done so inadequately, and sometimes even counterproductively in the Labour Party.
The remedy is to do community campaigning better, and to intervene more effectively in the Labour Party, not to abandon such areas of work in the guise of a promise to focus on workplace bread-and-butter issues.
In fact a real right-wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, has announced that he will again be standing for election as General Secretary.
In 2017, despite Unite’s image as a bedrock of the left, Coyne nearly won. The day the result was announced, Coyne was suspended and subsequently sacked for his conduct during the election campaign. An Employment Tribunal threw out his claim for unfair dismissal.
If Coyne’s 2017 campaign ever rose higher than a sewer, then certainly not beyond the level of a gutter.
“Take back control of our borders” (i.e. keep out foreign workers), “take back your union” (from whom?), and lurid personalised attacks on McCluskey (despite Coyne himself being an overpaid and unelected bureaucrat), were the staple of the demagogic-populist campaign.
An article in the Times of 16 January marked the opening shot in Coyne’s campaign. It was about multi-million-pound contracts across Britain being given by Unite to a company whose owner is under investigation for alleged bribery and who is “an associate” of Len McCluskey.
McCluskey and Flanagan, the company owner, were in turn linked by the article to former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and Derek Hatton (ex-Militant, ex-deputy-leader of Liverpool Council), both under investigation for bribery and witness intimidation.
What is missing from this already crowded field of contenders is a rank-and-file candidate.
But a rule change adopted by the last Unite Rules Change Conference makes a rank-and-file candidate virtually impossible. The change more than tripled the number of branch nominations needed to get on the ballot paper.