Workers' Liberty statement on the Unite general secretary election

Submitted by AWL on 17 January, 2013 - 1:15

Workers’ Liberty members in Unite will be critically supporting Len McCluskey, the candidate of Unite United Left (in which we are involved), in the forthcoming general secretary election.

There have been some positive improvements within Unite under McCluskey’s leadership. A culture of greater democracy and debate has been encouraged, and the move towards industrial reorganisation and workplace branches is positive. On the whole the union is more prepared than in the past to back its members in taking action, and providing resources to help organise direct action in support of industrial disputes. The new political strategy, whilst needing work to implement and make a reality, also represents a step forwards in how the union understands its relationship to the Labour Party.

However, our support for McCluskey is critical. We are opposed to the circumstances in which this election was called, as we do not think that a rushed election now is necessary. It cuts against moves to improve democracy in Unite, and make it very difficult for other potential candidates to stand. It can instead be seen as a manoeuvre by the incumbent to reduce the likelihood of a contested election.

We also believe that an honest accounting of McCluskey’s time in office show many weaknesses and failures. While the union has, in some places, shown greater willingness to organise and back radical industrial action, in others it has only done so after significant pressure from below — as in the case of the construction electricians’ dispute against pay cuts, where the union was initially hostile to the sparks’ campaign, with senior officers referring to them as “a cancer”.

The high-profile 2010-2011 British Airways dispute against deskilling and the introduction of a two-tier workforce, which began before McCluskey’s term of office but continued after his election, was mishandled. It was fought defensively from the outset and concluded with a deal that saw workers win only reversals of management attacks made during the strike. McCluskey was prominent in the national media talking up what was ultimately a shoddy deal, hailing it as a victory for negotiation! Despite more fighting talk from McCluskey, Unite's involvement in the 2011 pensions dispute ended with a whimper, with members in the NHS taking part in “workplace protests” only on 28 March, the last strike day in the campaign, despite a 94% rejection of the government's offer.

Unite under McCluskey’s leadership has vacillated on whether it will back Labour councillors who agree to defy cuts; there has been some left posturing, but when pushed at a United Left meeting to clarify the position McCluskey would only say that councillors should argue within Labour groups to defy cuts, but accept the Labour whip to vote for them if they were defeated. Rather than demanding Unite-backed Labour councillors defy the cuts collectively, and supporting them in doing so, McCluskey has said such defiance is a “personal choice” for individual councillors.

The union's new political strategy should see it taking a more combative stance in terms of its relationship to the Labour leadership. At the 2012 TUC Congress, Unite backed a radical motion from the Fire Brigades Union calling for public ownership of the banks. But the union's own motion to the Labour Party's 2012 conference on the same issue was decidedly less radical, and even then largely surrendered away in the composite (quite a feat for the country's biggest union and one of the most significant players at conference). Despite backing the new political strategy, McCluskey showed few signs of confrontation or opposition at the Labour conference, where he hailed Ed Miliband’s woeful “One Nation” speech as “the best speech by a Labour leader since John Smith” (!).

On top of this, McCluskey presides over an officialdom based on significant bureaucratic and material privilege, including on his own part, giving him access to a wage and a lifestyle closer to that of the bosses and government than his own members.

Nevertheless, we do not believe the challenge to him by Jerry Hicks is credible. Jerry’s record as an activist is in many ways respectworthy, and on some issues — such as the election of union officials and the principle of union officials taking only the average wage of their members – Workers’ Liberty agrees with him against McCluskey. On others (such as Hicks' support for full rights for retired members, his hostility to reorganising the union towards workplace branches, and his opposition to the political strategy towards the Labour Party), we are closer to McCluskey’s position than Hicks’.

We oppose the decision of the United Left leadership to exclude Socialist Workers Party members from the UL because of their party’s support for Jerry Hicks. This is a bureaucratic “solution” to a political problem. The SWP is wrong to support Hicks. Their members in the UL should be challenged about their support for Hicks, not treated as pariahs.

The UL has always prided itself on its culture of open and democratic debate. It should be broad enough to accommodate dissent about who to back in General Secretary elections. Excluding SWP members from the UL won't win them round to supporting McCluskey. Engaging in argument with them might.

We do not think Hicks’s candidacy represents a meaningful opportunity to develop the kind of rank-and-file network we believe necessary in Unite. Such a network will involve will surely involve many of the activists currently backing Jerry Hicks' campaign, as well as many not currently engaged in the formal politics of the union. But a key element in building it is engagement with and development of the main left-wing grouping of militants and activists within the union, namely the United Left. We will not therefore back Hicks against the agreed candidate of the United Left, despite our agreement with him on some issues.

In 2010, Workers’ Liberty backed the Socialist Party’s Rob Williams in a three-way contest (involving Williams, McCluskey, and Hicks) to determine who would be the United Left’s candidate for the general secretary election. When McCluskey won the nomination, Hicks and his supporters walked out of United Left and stood independently. We did not back Hicks’s challenge because we did not believe it offered a more credible basis than the existing United Left for developing a rank-and-file movement within Unite. We believe subsequent events have vindicated us; despite gaining an impressive vote in 2010, Hicks has failed to build any ongoing initiative or caucus within the union around the issues on which he stood. The “Grassroots Left” network in which he is now involved has very little life or activity and, as a glance at its website will show, exists primarily as a vehicle to promote Jerry Hicks.

Workers’ Liberty advocates voting for Len McCluskey, but with a clear understanding of what he represents. Beyond this, we call on Unite activists to join United Left to pressure the McCluskey leadership to act on and implement what is positive in its strategy, to criticise and oppose it where it is weak or wrong, and to develop the United Left network into a genuine rank-and-file caucus that can push for democratic and political reform within Unite.


Submitted by AWL on Mon, 18/03/2013 - 01:04

Hi Dave.

You don't give any positive reasons for voting for Jerry Hicks in your piece, except for one sentence extolling his personal virtues. Our statement says: "Jerry’s record as an activist is in many ways respectworthy, and on some issues — such as the election of union officials and the principle of union officials taking only the average wage of their members – Workers’ Liberty agrees with him against McCluskey."

So you don't have to convince us that Jerry is a good guy. I took part alongside him in many of the construction electricians pickets during the BESNA fight. But our view is that he is standing as a maverick leftist (and serial electioneer, who got a very impressive vote last time out but hasn't build anything out of it) on a programme of some laudable left-wing policies but without any suggestion of how voting for him will contribute to the building of an ongoing network inside the union that can fight to transform Unite. Grassroots Left is even less of a genuine rank-and-file network than United Left is, which is saying something.

As I think our statement makes very clear, our support for McCluskey is not based on "toning down of criticism of these bureaucrats", nor on a belief that he will "lead the fightback". Could you please show me where in our statement we say this? If this criticism is meant for some of McCluskey's other far-left backers (SP, Counterfire, ISG, etc.) but not us, then fair enough - but given that you're posting on our site, why not engage with our arguments rather than theirs?

Fundamentally, we do not believe Hicks' candidacy represents a real alternative that we can back against the democratically-agreed candidate of the United Left in which we are involved. Hicks may well get a sizeable vote, but how much of that will be general/vague (or even right-wing) hostility to the McCluskey regime and how much left-wing sentiment we would agree with, we'll probably never know, as Hicks has no programme for translating electoral posturing into the building of a rank-and-file network inside the union.

You say: "The need for a change in the UK trade unionism is clear to anyone with half an eye open." Yes, indeed. If you have half of one of your own eyes open then you'll have noticed that, where most of the left has spent years basing its intervention in the unions on election-focused, "broad left"-type approaches, building networks of leftists that function as electoral machines rather than rank-and-file bodies, Workers' Liberty has consistently argued for a perspective of top-to-bottom transformation of the labour movement on the basis of independent rank-and-file organisation. We were the only far-left group to argue for a serious alternative strategy during the 2011 pensions dispute, where the SWP, SP, and others let the bureaucracy's 100% control of the dispute go unchallenged by reducing their own role to arguing for an acceleration or ratcheting-up of the bureaucracy's own strategy (demanding a two-day strike when the leaders wanted one day, or engaging in empty sloganeering for a "general strike"). We have been integral to the establishment of LANAC, one of the only genuine rank-and-file initiatives in the British labour movement in recent years. In short, you don't need to tell us that the British labour movement needs to change.

In fact, it's precisely because we are committed to serious rank-and-fileism - and not sectarian leftist posturing - that we are involved in what remains, despite its many limitations, the major formal grouping of militants in Unite, i.e. United Left, and will therefore back the United Left candidate.


Daniel Randall

Submitted by peewee29 on Mon, 18/03/2013 - 13:58

Sadly, Dave's contribution is all too typical of Hicks' supporters in that it noticeably fails to address the real issues at stake, substituting instead a vague and not very coherent desire for something (unspecified) better. Hicks' platform is no better than McCluskey's (except in one single regard: taking the average workers' wage) but in two respects is worse:

* His opposition to branch reorganisation and workplace branches (and the extraordinary promise that one single individual in a branch will be allowed to veto this)

* His promise of full rights to retired members (no much for the *workers* in the sectors deciding policy)

I'd like to say more in response to Dave (a militant I respect), but intruth there's virtually nothing there to engage with.

In contrast, the article from Jim Kelly is a serious contribution, worthy of a serious response: (I tried to provide a link but the WL spam filter won't allow it). Kelly's article can be found on the UL website and at 'Shiraz Socialist'. Both Daniel and Dave should address Jim's points.

Submitted by peewee29 on Mon, 18/03/2013 - 14:16

I should have mentioned Dave's dreadful position on workplace branches and branch reorganisation (something that's essential if elementary trade unionism is to be maintained/ re-established in Unite).

The following comment from a Unite activist on another website sums up the reality of the position:

Branch restructuring wasn’t merely about breaking up large, too often unwieldy, composite branches, which were, sometimes, run by Secretaries who did little work, but pocketed sizable sums of money. This was an obvious problem, caused by a number of factors, including poor administration within the regions, but more importantly a loss of industrial focus and political direction from the centre.

Thus we had scores of thousands of members who were in the wrong industrial branch; in branches that held no relevance to the work in which they were engaged; and languishing in holding branches due to the reasons given above.

Of course, in a union that organises the range of sectors as does Unite; and given factors such as rural workers, spread, often thinly, over large geographical areas, we can, and do, appreciate that not all workers will conveniently fit into the ideal workplace branch.

However, Unite is right to look to the workplace branch as the ideal, while operating other types of branch to better suit the structure of the sector involved. For instance in the voluntary sector demanding all workers form into workplace branches would not be feasible given that our members are dotted around, many, in small numbers across hundreds of organisations. Typically in the voluntary sector you’ll find shops and organisations ranging from less than a handful to twenty or thirty; with larger concerns, like Shelter that employ 1,000 across Britain.

While the voluntary sector is not the best example of how the branch structure operates at workplace level, it does none-the-less demonstrate that Unite has not set out to impose a one-size-fits-all policy to the restructuring of branches.

As a member of a Unite Regional Committee and F&GP, I was involved in the restructuring process; and, indeed as a Branch Secretary I had an input. Every Branch Secretary had a chance to attend an open meeting from which they could deliver information to their members; where more complex set-ups were in place some secretaries met face-to-face with the Regional Chair and a senior RIO.

In fact that the process created three main types of Branch:
1. The workplace branch which serves Unite members in a particular workplace or workplaces;
2. The sector branch which serves Unite members in a particular sector. These branches can be quite specialist, such as my branch which organises workers who are employed as advisors within the VS; or, the housing branch which deals with organisations such as Shelter. Therefore these kinds of branches have a sectoral and geographical role.
3. The last is the composite branch which takes in people from different sectors within a given geographical area.

There are other types such as National Branches, but these are the exeption to the rule.

Sadly, as the restructuring began to roll out, there were individuals who felt that their right to remain in a branch which may have been their home for decades should supersede that of the industrial and political logic of placing them into properly structured groups.

More often we found secretaries of composite branches complaining when they discovered that a group of 100 members were being taken out to form a workplace branch. In one instance seven branches were formed from one ‘holding’ branch by the end of the process – with the holding branch remained a quite large composite branch.

Of course democracy bonds us as trade unionists. Without democracy we would fall. Yet, there are also other bonds within our organisation without which we would be equally vulnerable and weak. Where would we be without unity; without the strength of the workplace membership. The branch isn’t merely an administrative construct, it should be basis of industrial power, the source by which political influence is gained and the very bedrock of union democracy.

Anyone who regards Unite’s branch restructuring as a diminution of the democratic rights of the member doesn’t actually understand that allowing the individual to pick and choose his or her branch on the basis they are a member and therefore entitled to this right doesn’t actually understand the democratic process, and misses by miles the whole point of unions.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 19/03/2013 - 09:38

See here.

Submitted by peewee29 on Fri, 22/03/2013 - 22:48

Dave: I, Jim Denham, am "pee wee" and hadn't realised my comments had appeared under that pseudonym. It was never my intention to conceal my identity. The comments on branch reorganisation were, as I clearly stated "from a Unite activist on another website" and I thought I'd also made it clear that I agree with them. Hardly "pinching" I'd have thought. There has been no intention to deceive anyone about who I am or where I stand. I am simply amazed that a left-wing militant can oppose the principle of industrial branches and, it seems, support the status quo when it comes to the branch structure of the union. I "pinched" the comments from another blog ("Socialist Unity" as it happens) because I thought the author summed things up very well.

I'd also be interested to read Dave's response to the Kelly article.

Submitted by peewee29 on Sat, 23/03/2013 - 23:21

Here's something I've written for 'Shiraz Socialist' (Jim Denham):

Ballot papers for the Unite general secretary election are going out now. If any member hasn’t received one by Wednesday 5 April, they should contact the Unite ballot enquiry service.

The first thing that will strike many members is that in their election addresses, both candidates make personal attacks on each other – something that has hitherto been considered very bad form in Unite elections. The challenger Jerry Hicks accuses the incumbent Len McCluskey of holding an unnecessary election in order to hang on to power, and of being a bureaucrat who’s never led a real fight. McCluskey describes Hicks as someone who’s played no role in the union in recent years, as a “political opportunist” without a clear agenda and who is backed by “the discredited Socialist Workers Party.”

None of this is very seemly, but is probably inevitable when there are just two candidates, both claiming to be on the left and with no major policy differences between them. It should also be noted that Hicks and his supporters have been making highly personal attacks on McCluskey both verbally and in print, ever since the election was announced.

As regular readers will have already worked out, I’ll be voting for McCluskey. That’s despite the fact that on two questions (whether this election is really necessary and the Gen Sec being on the average wage of the members) I agree with Hicks.

So why vote for McCluskey? Firstly, in my opinion, he’s been an effective General Secretary who has developed and begun to implement a serious strategy for reversing the decline of the union. He has supported members in struggle (no dispute has been repudiated under his leadership), is radically restructuring the union with an emphasis upon workplace branches where possible (something Hicks seems to oppose – but more on that shortly) and has begun to implement a new political strategy that involves fighting for the union’s policies within the Labour Party rather than writing out a blank cheque (and again, Hicks is completely unclear on the Labour link).

In my view, questions like branch re-organisation and (re)building a functioning industrial and political structure for the union, are far more important than the General Secretary’s salary, or indeed, the election of officials (accountability of officials is the real issue in Unite at the moment, it seems to me).

In fact, if you examine Hick’s election address, it’s little more than a not very coherent wish-list of often quite vague demands and aspirations, together with whinging about things like “Emails/letters go(ing) unanswered“(!)

Let’s take some specifics. In his address, Hicks says this about the branch reorganisation: “Workplace branches are logical, but member will agree changes not be told.” What exactly does that mean? Is Hicks actually in favour of the branch reorganisation, or not? I ask this question because not so very long ago, Hicks was saying something slightly different, viz: “ No member will be re-allocated to a Branch without their prior agreement.” If taken literally, that can only mean that an individual member would have the right and ability to veto branch re-organisation – an extraordinary position to take in a democratic, collective organisation!

Or take this, from Hicks’ address: “Confront the anti union laws and support unofficial action where necessary.” EITHER that wording really means campaigning for the repeal of the laws and from time to time, taking a decision to push them to the limit… OR it means a commitment to confront the law on every occasion. If it’s the former, then it’s no different to McCluskey’s position (eg during the London bus dispute last year). If the latter, it’s a recipe for bankrupting the union.

But underlying these specifics is a fundamental misjudgement on the part of Hicks and his supporters, about the present state of the class struggle and about what’s happening in Unite.

Jim Kelly, in his very detailed article, has made many of the points that need to be made, and I look forward to reading a serious reply from Hicks and/or his supporters. In the meanwhile, I’d like to make some further observations:

Underlying much of what Hicks and his supporters say is the assumption that McCluskey and the “bureaucracy” are afraid of militant action by the membership, or are simply so useless that they inevitably sell it out. Now I think the Kelly article deals with this, but let me pose a more general question: why would McCluskey want to sell out strikes? From his own, “bureaucratic” point of view, why would he do it? His position depends ultimately upon his industrial muscle, and he surely knows that. McCluskey has been accused of many things, but being a fool is not usually one of them.

There is a further point to be made here: when unions take industrial action there is no guarantee of winning and the reasons for defeat are not always simply betrayal by the bureaucracy. Some disputes turn out to be practically unwinnable, despite the best efforts of members and bureaucrats alike. It is often very difficult, when you’re not directly involved, to make a judgement as to whether a given dispute could have been won if different, more militant, tactics had been employed. Hicks and his people like to blame every defeat (and, indeed, some partial victories they call “defeats”) on the “bureaucracy” in general and McCluskey in particular. This criticism, if made in good faith, demonstrates an incredible ignorance of how Unite actually operates. It assumes that the General Secretary micro-manages every aspect of union activity, and industrial disputes in particular. This is a fantasy. What the Gen Sec certainly can and should do is set the political direction and overall approach of the union. McCluskey has dome this by, for instance, closing down the mechanism within the union for repudiating disputes.

Unite has some 600 officers working for 10 Regional Secretaries (not the Gen Sec). Not all those officials are in agreement with McCluskey’s “fighting-back union” strategy. Industrial disputes are controlled by the internal structures and committees of the union, not directly by the Gen Sec. Of course, on the big political disputes and campaigns the Gen Sec will have a major say, but he cannot simply close down a dispute or set the “line” or determine strategy or tactics. In Unite, disputes and campaigns really are run by officers and senior reps/stewards. A classic case in point is the public sector pensions dispute last year. Hicks, in his election address, says: “Len McCluskey talks big but failed to back the co-ordinated public sector strike last March. A big mistake!” What Hicks fails to mention is that McCluskey and the Executive of the union gave full backing to the call for strike action in March. It was the lay members and reps in health, local authorities and the MoD who voted (after UNISON and the GMB pulled out) not to strike. But to admit that wouldn’t fit in with the Hicks world-view.

The often craven end result of such a simplistic way of looking at the world was well illustrated at the last AGM of the so-called ‘Grassroots Left’, the group that Hicks formed to back his leadership ambitions. One of the platform speakers was bemoaning the fact that the factory where he works (a major Midlands car plant) had just voted to accept a very poor pay deal. He started to blame this on McCluskey’s “lack of leadership” before momentarily hesitating as a thought seemed to strike him in mid-flow: “well, actually us on the Joint Shop Stewards Committee voted to accept, but only because we felt we had no alternative.” That about sums it up, I think.

The truth is that Hicks and his supporters are not fit and proper people to be running Unite. Those of us who’ll be voting for Len McCluskey are doing so with varying degrees of criticism, but we all recognise that his leadership has been generally positive and that his strategy for reversing decline and building a “fighting-back union” is the only coherent way forward on offer in this election.

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