In the election campaigning for the post of Unite the Union’s General Secretary, the McCluskey election machine continues to deliver the goods.
With a while still to go before nominations close on 17 February, over 300 branches have nominated Len McCluskey, who has been general secretary since 2011 but has stood down early so he could run for a third term. A statement supporting McCluskey has been signed by 60 out of 64 Executive Council members and a similarly overwhelming majority on other top levels of the union.
McCluskey’s election platform is a series of uncontroversial promises: better pay deals; protect jobs; defend union reps; more support for members in dispute; and “for power and against injustice”.
Right-wing challenger Kevin Coyne has not — or not yet — knocked McCluskey’s campaign off course. Even his attempts to highlight the scandal of the equity share deal whereby Unite paid £400,000 towards the cost of McCluskey’s £700,000 central-London flat have failed to pick up traction. Left-wing challenger Ian Allinson has also failed to dent McCluskey’s campaign.
When an internal Unite report revealing the extent of bullying suffered by Unite female full-timers was published by Allinson, female full-timers and female Executive Council members rallied round McCluskey and issued a public statement condemning Allinson for publishing the report: “Through Len McCluskey’s leadership we (women) are building our leadership in workplace activism. We are appalled that this report has been misrepresented and used as a political football by candidates in the election for the post of Unite general secretary.”
But the slick campaign being run for McCluskey conceals a number of problems, including the gap which separates McCluskey’s election rhetoric from reality, and the gap between McCluskey’s policies and the policies which Unite should be championing.
“I will continue to fight the pernicious Trade Union Act,” McCluskey has declared. But a serious campaign against the Tories’ anti-union laws is yet to be launched by Unite, never mind “continued”. A workers’ plan of production which would reconcile non-renewal of Trident with protection of jobs and pay has disappeared off the radar. Instead McCluskey’s line remains: “Everyone would love the whole world to get rid of nuclear weapons. … However, the most important thing for us is to protect jobs. In the absence of any credible alternative to protect jobs and high skills, we will vote against any anti-Trident resolution.”
When McCluskey visited Barrow shipyards at the start of the election campaign he attacked the Tories not for squandering money on Trident but for “carelessness” and “point-scoring”. McCluskey’s election campaign backs continuing access to the EU Single Market but not freedom of movement of labour (even though, as McCluskey must know, it must be both or neither). McCluskey is explicit in his opposition to freedom of movement: “The real-world impact of an EU-wide free market in labour has been a deterioration in wage rates and other conditions. I therefore welcome Labour’s clear commitment that it is not ‘wedded to free movement’.”
Freedom of movement is caricatured by McCluskey as a right-wing policy: “We cannot embrace the neo-liberal dogma of free movement without safeguards – the approach championed by bad employers and Labour’s right in the recent past.”
The “safeguards” proposed by McCluskey are that only employers which recognise a trade union or engage in collective bargaining should be allowed to recruit outside of the UK. This would result in less migrant labour, says McCluskey, as employers would no longer have an incentive to employ them.
Coyne’s promise to hand back control of Unite to its members is vacuous, populist demagogy. But nothing in McCluskey’s election material makes any linkage between McCluskey’s re-election and a greater degree of real rank-and-file control of the union. This underlines the need to couple campaigning for a vote for McCluskey with a reassertion of rank-and-file democracy against all versions of machine politics – both left and right.