Despite some setbacks for the top table, the 24-28 June Unite the Union Rules Conference saw little or no progress in democratising Britain’s second-biggest trade union.
The number of branch nominations needed to get on the ballot paper in a General Secretary election was increased from the current 50 to 5% of all Unite branches – around 150.
Trebling the number of nominations makes it far more difficult for rank-and-file candidates to get onto the ballot paper. It effectively makes General Secretary elections the preserve of Unite full-timers and their ‘election machines’.
Motions proposing STV in General Secretary elections were defeated. Admittedly, trebling the number of nominations makes it unlikely that there would be more than two candidates in an election. In that sense, the motions’ defeat was irrelevant.
But the rejection of STV means that if a rank-and-file candidate were to get on the ballot paper, the blackmail card of ‘Vote for the ‘left’ bureaucratic candidate or else the right-wing candidate might win because of a split left vote’ could, and would, continue to be played.
On a more positive note, a motion to deny workplaces with less than 50 members the right to be treated as workplace branches and make nominations in General Secretary elections was rejected.
The motion aimed to make it even more difficult for a rank-and-file candidate to get on the ballot paper: In recent General Secretary elections workplace nominations have been disproportionately more likely to go to a rank-and-file candidate.
A rule changes which would have required Unite full-timers to be elected, paid the average wage in their sector, and be recallable at any time was heavily defeated.
One speaker against the motion argued that the appointment of officers provided for equality of opportunity for members.
But Unite’s own Gender Pay Gap Report reveals that only 5 out of 22 National Officers are female, Unite’s mean gender pay gap is 18.5%, and its median gender pay gap is 28.5%.
Another speaker against the motion argued: “How can we ask our officers to put their jobs on the line every three years or so (in line with Unite’s three-yearly election cycle)?”
By that logic, Labour MPs should never be subject to reselection, and the Chartists were totally in the wrong for demanding annual Parliaments.
A motion changing Unite’s definition of youth from “up to 26 years of age” to up to “30 years of age” was passed.
Lofty rhetoric about the importance of youth covered up the more mundane fact that membership of national or regional youth committees can be the first step of a future career as a full-timer. Re-defining youth – upwards – facilitates such a career progression.
Another motion which went down to defeat sought to ensure that Unite Policy Conferences would decide policy solely on the basis of motions submitted to conference. The aim of the motion was to prevent policy-making being ‘gazumped’ by Executive Council (EC) statements.
The motion could have been better worded. There could be emergencies when presenting an EC statement to conference would be legitimate. But, in practice, EC statements are used to kill off controversial motions: Once conference adopts an EC statement, all other relevant motions fall automatically.
The bigger picture behind the Rules Conference was the next Unite General Secretary election. Current incumbent Len McCluskey is likely to be standing down at the Unite Policy Conference in Liverpool in June or July 2020.
Hence the significance of the debates and votes about rule changes which impact on General Secretary elections. But rather than ‘open up’ the elections, the rule changes adopted by the conference will, by design, have the opposite effect.
In the debates and votes about those rule changes the United Left (UL, the ‘Broad Left’ in Unite) took the wrong position on every occasion.
While paying lip-service to the idea of a lay-member-led trade union, the UL backed the motions which strengthened the grip of the bureaucracy on the union. In fact, it was the UL which drew up and circulated such motions as model motions.
And the two fringe meetings which the UL held at the conference might have been better entitled: “SteveTurner4GS”.
The UL claims that it is not a mere election machine. As UL Chairperson Jim Kelly put it at one of the UL fringe meetings: “We have won three General Secretary elections. We are criticised for being just an election machine. However we are much more than that.”
Poor Jimmy must be suffering from memory loss.
Following the last General Secretary election, which saw a fall in turnout and a slump in support for UL candidate Len McCluskey, Kelly wrote: “While we should be pleased about our record as an electoral machine, the question is: Can the United Left be anything more than an election machine?”
Nothing the UL has done in the intervening two years provides a positive answer to that question. And the reason for that failure was provided by Jim Kelly himself in his article of two years ago:
“While the UL can advise and criticise the bureaucracy, it cannot replace it nor hold it to account in the manner put forward (by critics of the UL), as the UL already runs the bureaucracy and large numbers of UL members are part of the bureaucracy, including, of course, the General Secretary.”