Ballot papers for Unite the Union’s General Secretary and national Executive Council elections have been sent out to the union’s 1.4 million members. Voting runs to 19 April, and the result will be out on 28 April.
West Midlands Unite full-timer Gerard Coyne is the right-wing challenger to Len McCluskey, the incumbent General Secretary seeking re-election for a third time. Ian Allinson is also standing as the candidate of rank-and-file democracy.
Coyne’s campaign has made right-wing appeals to disengaged members of Unite. Apart from a promise to freeze union dues for two years, Coyne is standing for election on a largely policies-free platform. The vacuum is filled by mud-slinging, honing in on Unite putting over £400,000 into a share equity deal which enabled McCluskey to buy a £700,000 London flat. Coyne’s conclusion: “The man who talks about greedy bosses is a greedy boss himself.”
Another of Coyne’s targets is the £75,000 which Unite lent to Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 Labour Party leadership campaign, and subsequently wrote off as a donation. Coyne’s response: “I’ll focus on saving the jobs of our members, not the job of the leader of the Labour Party.”
More recently, Coyne teamed up with Tom Watson to portray McCluskey as being in cahoots with Momentum in a plot to take over the Labour Party. Coyne’s strategy is to portray McCluskey as being engrossed in Labour Party politics and out of touch with ordinary Unite members: “Luxury flat loans and propping up the hard left: McCluskey is losing touch with Unite members.”
Coyne is not interested in arguing with McCluskey and winning over his supporters. His target is the most passive and inactive layers of Unite’s membership; for example in late March Coyne was given space in the Sun, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express to attack McCluskey and promote his own campaign.
On the other hand, McCluskey is relying first and foremost on the Unite apparatus and the United Left election machine, rather than on political argument and membership engagement, to turn out the vote for him. Coyne’s alliance with the right wing of the Labour Party has not been used by McCluskey as an opportunity to open up a political debate among the Unite membership about implementation of the union’s political strategy. Instead, McCluskey has argued that a political strategy plays no role in his campaign and that his only concern is members’ bread-and-butter issues.
Coyne was (rightly) denounced for having written for the Sun – above all in a widely circulated article published in the Morning Star: “Collaborating with Murdoch is a taint that never fades”. So, writing for the Sun is an irremovable stain. But writing for a paper which acts as an apologist for Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, left anti-semitism, Brexit, attacks on freedom of movement of labour, and anti-Trotskyist witch-hunts in the Labour Party is an honour and a privilege.
Coyne doesn’t care about the opprobrium heaped on him for having written for the Sun. Metaphorially and literally, it is the readership of the Sun which is his target audience. Such examples sum up McCluskey’s campaign: based on a bureaucratic machine, averse to a real debate among the membership, and “left wing” only insofar as the politics of the Morning Star can be deemed to represent what counts as “left politics”.
Despite lacking the vast resources which Coyne and McCluskey have at their disposal, Ian Allinson secured enough nominations to be included on the ballot papers which have just been sent out. This is no small achievement . But while his campaign has challenged McCluskey from the left and raised basic ideas about what a lay-member-led union — in which full-timers are properly accountable to the membership — would look like, his campaign has not really taken off. Allison has not succeeded in defeating the argument that his campaign will achieve no more than taking votes way from McCluskey, thereby increasing Coyne’s chances of winning. And Allinson himself accepts that a victory for Coyne would be a disaster.
Nor has he succeeded in defeating the argument that his boast of being more pro-Corbyn than McCluskey himself is incoherent – given that he is not a Labour Party member and refuses to even attempt to join the Labour Party. Allinson’s support for Corbyn is not part of any strategy for transforming the Labour Party. And it defines what the Labour Party is in terms of who its leader is at any particular moment in time. Allinson has made support for freedom of movement a major feature of his campaign, but he is reported to have tweeted in January (though the tweet is no longer visible): “I wasn’t in Lexit campaign. Did vote out. Most arguments on both sides rotten. Key issues now workers’ rights & movement.”
This amounts to defending migrant rights which are under attack as a result of the course of action which he supported last June! Unite members should vote for McCluskey. But that is no more than the first stage of the campaign needed.