Workplace & Trade Unions

Socialist Party backs McCluskey, candidate of the Unite bureaucracy

11 February 2013

RANK AND FILE candidate Jerry Hicks has now secured 84 validated branch nominations – with several days still to go to the deadline for nominations. Barring a veritable bureaucratic coup d’état Jerry will run against Len McCluskey for general secretary of Unite. Jeremy Dewar looks at the reasoning behind the Socialist Party’s backing for the single candidate of the Unite bureaucracy, Len McCluskey.

Perhaps predictably, the Socialist Party has chosen to throw its weight behind the incumbent McCluskey – even though his only challenger, Hicks, has a proven base of support in the union, is a champion of rank and file control of the union, and stands on a platform well to McCluskey’s left.

The Socialist Party announced its support for Len McCluskey in a statement published on 3 January. Obviously the SP was deeply flattered by the fact that McCluskey’s candidacy had “been agreed after wide consultation on the left, including ourselves. Peter Taaffe and Rob Williams had a two-hour meeting with (hi) where he asked for our party’s endorsement of the steps he was preparing to take.”

The SP leaders clearly accepted at face value McCluskey’s paper-thin excuses for calling this undemocratic snap election, whitewashed his record in office in the most fulsome terms, and turned its back on the chance to build a genuine rank and file organisation in Unite, Britain’s biggest union.

An election only Miliband wanted

Len McCluskey was elected general secretary only in 2010. He is not due for re-election until 2015. So why has he decided to go early? The answer is not hard to find; it’s contained in the NEC resolution of 4 December that gave McCluskey the green light:

“The next General Secretary election [is scheduled to] take place in 2015, at the same time as the General Election itself is scheduled. Any outcome of the General Election will certainly raise important issues for Unite and its membership, in particular in relation to our political strategy and our links with the Labour Party, requiring strong leadership at the time. It will be no time for a vacuum such as would inevitably be the consequence of a General Secretary election campaign at the same time.

“In light of these considerations, the Executive Council resolves to hold an election for the post of Unite General Secretary as soon as practicable.”

As Jerry Hicks has pointed out, the last thing Labour (or Len McCluskey) wants during the run-in to a general election is for 1.5 million workers to be debating the union’s policies. These would doubtless focus on why, when it gives millions to the Labour Party, Unite gets little in return except snubs. Left candidates – even one such as McCluskey – would have to demand substantive pro-working class measures from a Labour government and this would be an enormous embarrassment to Miliband, by then trying his damnedest to prove to Middle England that he is not beholden to the unions by scorning just such policies.

So why does the Socialist Party – which asserts that Labour is no longer any sort of working class party give such fawning support to one of the most vocal advocates of maintaining the union’s links and funding to what they characterise as a capitalist party?

The Socialist attempts to take in its readers and SP members, with the claim that McCluskey’s hand was forced “because of his age”. In fact, McCluskey will be 65 in 2015; it is Unite policy to fight for the retirement age to remain at… 65. In short, the only reason he is standing is to let Labour’s leaders off the hook.

The SP statement ruefully concedes that some activists believe “the early election is undemocratic and smacks of past sharp practice” reminiscent of the right wing. Too right they do! They agree there are “genuine concerns” but then go on to explain, “it’s not just a case of what is done but who does it and for what reasons” because in this instance the aim is “to consolidate the union for the left”:

“Providing the rank and file is strengthened, we believe a victory for Len McCluskey can achieve this.”

But how could this snap “election” achieve this? The tight timetable – itself interrupted by the winter break – was designed to minimise the possibility of a challenger getting onto the ballot paper; Unite’s officials – to a woman and a man – agreed in advance not to put up a rival candidate; the SP-controlled National Shop Stewards Network has suppressed any mention that there was an election in progress; and the SP’s statement does not place a single demand on McCluskey.

Far from using the election to put McCluskey under pressure and strengthen the rank and file, the SP has connived to help him slip back into office without anyone noticing. If it wasn’t for the Grassroots Left and Jerry Hicks, McCluskey would have been re-elected unopposed and the members denied a chance to meet, debate and vote on the real issues facing the union: how to stop the cuts, democratise their union and forge a party to represent the working class.

McCluskey’s record

So what about the SP’s claim that McCluskey has “consolidated the union for the left”? On one level, there is some truth in this statement. Unite did back the Prison Officers Association motion to the TUC to “consider the practicalities of a general strike” and McCluskey used his platform speech in Hyde Park on the 20 October march for A Future That Works to agitate for such a strike.

He has also set up the new community branches to bring unemployed and precarious workers into the union – though he has failed to provide them with financial backing or grant them autonomy.

But on the big issues, McCluskey has at best sat on the fence, at worst sabotaged a concerted fightback. He has talked the talk all right; but he hasn’t walked the walk.

Despite the SP referring to “innumerable strikes by Unite members and some notable victories, even if partial and/or short-lived” and listing the examples of “the sparks, London bus workers, Paddy Brennan in Honda Swindon, and now the Doncaster Tesco drivers” as well as action at “Unilever, Crown, Remploy and Amnesty” – the fact remains that McCluskey is no different from the rest of our union leaders, left as well as right, who have allowed a few strikes to take place but failed to mount any real challenge to the Coalition and the bosses’ offensive.

According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 1.5 million strike days in 2011 and a mere 250,000 last year. The vast majority of these were in public services and education. If you look specifically at those sectors where Unite is strongest, the picture is even grimmer: manufacturing (26 strikes involving 23,000 days lost), construction (12 strikes, 30,000 days lost), transport (46 strikes, 38,000 days lost) and financial services (3 strikes, 1,300 days lost).

These are sectors where job losses and wage cuts have accumulated. But the figures reveal a trade union leadership that has signally failed to put up any fight whatsoever in the face of the biggest and longest slump for 70, maybe 100 years, the slashing of wages by an average of £1,600 a year, and the destruction of the NHS. McCluskey is part of that leadership, part of the problem not the solution.

A closer look at some of the examples the SP quotes also shows that Unite under McCluskey has ducked the really big issues. The excellent action to stop the victimisation of Paddy Brennan is one thing, but why does the SP not mention the utter failure to launch strike action to stop thousands of jobs going across the car industry from Honda to Ford to Vauxhall? Because the car industry has been decimated without any resistance. No wonder the bosses feel confident enough to have a go at militants like Paddy Brennan!

The sparks have indeed been an inspiration to thousands of activists and forced the rapacious construction giants back in their boxes. But no thanks to the Unite officials whom McCluskey backs and who now back McCluskey. They failed to call any strike action to stop the 30 per cent wage cut and deskilling offensive in 2011 until it was nearly too late; then they limited the ballot to one firm; then they called off the ballot without even going to court to challenge Balfour Beatty’s injunction.

Only the independent action of the rank and file committee saved the day and won the victory. What role did the Unite official play? He called the construction rank and file “a poisonous group” and Jerry Hicks, who supported them from day one, a “cancer”. McCluskey has failed to distance himself from these remarks let alone remove the unelected official from office.

What about Remploy? The workers held a magnificent one-day strike and were up for more – including occupying the threatened plants. But Unite and the GMB called off the action on the eve of the Paralympics, when the eyes of the world were on the UK and the Coalition’s disabled rights record. What a wasted opportunity. What a waste of 1,421 jobs.

London bus drivers also won an easy victory. But they only won a one-off bonus of £500. Where did the campaign for ratcheting up the wages of all drivers to the level of the best-paid go? Nowhere. McCluskey has neither relaunched this vital campaign nor removed the officials who have stood aside while good militants like Abdul Omer have been victimised.

Finally, but most importantly, McCluskey failed to bring his troops onto the battlefield over public sector pensions until the very last minute… and brought them off again immediately after the N30 strike in 2011.

True, McCluskey “refused to sign the government’s “heads of agreement”, as the SP points out, and even allowed a few thousand civil service members to walk out alongside the PCS six months later (though the SP is misleading when it implies Unite brought out its 100,000 health workers in May 2012 – it did nothing of the sort). But this is how McCluskey maintains his powerbase: by talking with the left while acting with the right.

Rank and file

The SP statement goes on to credit McCluskey with more left wing motives and achievements. He is said to have given “Labour leader Miliband an ultimatum that Labour doesn’t stand candidates against” expelled Labour councillors who vote against the cuts, claiming this “could change the whole relationship between Unite and Labour”

What nonsense. Unite under McCluskey has given £6 million of its members money to Labour. McCluskey backed Miliband for leader. He’s even run roughshod over Unite’s own democracy to make it easier for Labour to ignore workers’ demands in the next general election. Only willing dupes, which is what the SP have reduced themselves to, would believe that McCluskey is about to break from Labour. In fact the SP is now helping McCluskey pull the wool over Unite members’ eyes regarding the real relation between Labour and Unite.

The self-proclaimed revolutionaries also take McCluskey at his word that “Unite will ballot and take action alongside PCS on pay” – though, considering his miserable record to date in organising coordinated strike action, Unite members would do well not to rely on such election promises of action.

The SP is forced, however, to admit that “Unite’s United Left has many weaknesses – it is still too much influenced by full-time officials and hasn’t been able to attract enough fresh forces”. Nevertheless, it criticises Jerry for “continuing with his own Grassroots Left” and “has proved incapable of building the broad left alliance that would be essential to drive the union to the left”.

This brings us to the heart of the SP’s industrial strategy. The United Left is the descendent of the old AEU Gazette: an old-style, Stalinist-run broad left. In 2010, the UL refused to allow Jerry’s supporters the right to speak and vote at its national hustings, where it decided to support Len McCluskey. The original SP statement blames Jerry Hicks for walking out of this meeting and the UL; only when Hicks replies with the true story is Rob Williams forced to acknowledge the facts of this political exclusion. But even then Williams claims that the UL is the only game in town and it is wrong to break from it.

However, the UL is not only “still influenced” by fulltime officials, but it is controlled and dominated by them. These officials are involved in selling out members. The only reason for the UL’s existence is to mobilise branch officers to re-elect UL leaders, who can then appoint UL officials.

The worst example of the UL in action recently is the British Airways dispute, where UL officials – having already overruled 90% strike votes rather than challenge the anti-union laws, and having already suspended successful strikes in favour of secret talks – recommended a rotten deal in May 2011. Worse, they misrepresented the offer as a “victory” when in reality it was indistinguishable from the original offer: fewer jobs, worse conditions, lower pay.

When Socialist Worker spilled the beans and agitated for rejection of the deal, UL officials called for SWP members to be expelled from the “broad” left for the crime of “implicitly criticising our left general secretary”, i.e. McCluskey. Needless to add that the UL has now expelled SWP members from its ranks for supporting Hicks in 2013.

The truth is that the broad left strategy – stolen from the CP policy of the 1960s and 1970s – is one of electing “left general secretaries” and then shamefully letting down the rank and file activists who campaigned so hard for them. It does not aim to fundamentally transform the unions into democratic, fighting organisations, controlled by the rank and file, but rather to capture the bureaucracy for the “left”. The problem is that the whole experience of trade union struggles in Britain shows that these “lefts” surrender to the right at critical moments – usually through the medium of their loyalty to Labour and the need to get or preserve a Labour government, which attacks workers just like the Tories.

The result of this broad left strategy can be seen in the failure of the NUT, PCS and Unite to mount a serious challenge beyond one day strikes every six to nine months or so.

Every socialist, and every rank and file militant should support Jerry Hicks’ campaign for general secretary. But more than this they should join with Jerry and all his supporters to ensure that a substantial rank and file organisation is built during and after his campaign. Win or lose, our aim above all others is to organise the activists to launch a real fight against the Tories and the bosses, with or without the officials – and to oust the bureaucracy from our unions.

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