Industrial  •  Unite the union

Unite: Is there an alternative to the Broad Left strategy?

06 August 2021

The current general secretary election in Unite the Union has raised some important questions regarding the role of the trade union bureaucracy in Unite and the left’s relationship to it. The membership was presented with three, and then two, left candidates, all of whom are full-time paid employees of the union. That the endorsement of union’s left-wing faction was not even contested by a rank and file candidate raises questions about the nature of United Left, and broad left factions across the union movement.

Unite, since its formation, has been dominated by United Left, a formation which focusses on winning positions within the union apparatus. Len McCluskey, outgoing General Secretary, is a member, as is Steve Turner, who won its endorsement for this election, and prospective candidate Howard Beckett, who eventually stood aside and endorsed Turner.  It is this organisation that Turner is expecting to assure his election as general secretary. It dominates Unite’s bureaucracy at every level, particularly the NEC and the regions.

Red Flag is supporting Steve Turner in the election because he seems the most likely to beat hard right candidate Gerard Coyne, whose victory in the election would be a disaster for Unite members and the left. However, there are serious problems with United Left and its role in the union, which originate in it being a “broad left” formation, based upon the left of the trade union bureaucracy, rather than the working-class membership.

The Development of United Left

The history of United Left goes back to the formation of Unite in 2007, when Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) merged. The General Secretary of Amicus, Derek Simpson, and of the TGWU, Tony Woodley, acted as joint general secretaries of the new union. Both were elected as broadly left-wing figures in their own unions, although Simpson in particular moved rightwards after his election in 2002.

Their elections, along with the election of similar left-wing figures to the leaderships of the FBU, the RMT, the CWU the PCS and others, were part of a reaction of trade unionists to the neoliberal politics of New Labour. As Labour shifted drastically to the right, many union members looked to trade union leaders to defend their interests.

United Left was formed as an electoral bloc to ensure that the left-wing of the bureaucracy dominated the union following the merger. Its candidate, Len McCluskey, was elected with over 42 percent of the vote in 2010. The faction has dominated the union ever since, with McCluskey winning two subsequent elections in 2013 and 2017, despite his original promise to only serve one term.

United Left’s stated politics are broadly left-wing. In its “who we are and what we do” statement it claims, “We are ‘socialists’ in the general sense of the word”, supporting state ownership, public services, a welfare state and progressive taxation. While it includes members of organisations such as the Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party, most of its members are supporters of the Labour Party, and its politics are best described as left Labourism.

While United Left’s membership numbers some lay-officials and activists, it is dominated by full-time officials, not the least of whom is the General Secretary himself. It does not aim for a mass membership in the union rank and file, nor does it promote or organise disputes and solidarity activity within the union, remaining focussed on internal manoeuvres and elections to secure positions on Unite’s ruling bodies and within its fulltime apparatus.

United Left’s role in the union is thus inextricably linked to that of the leadership and officialdom, as it is essentially the ruling faction of the union. Its record is far from consistently left, with the last fourteen years being littered with climb-downs and sell outs. Unite’s role in the early years of the Tory government and the beginning of austerity is a clear example. After the 2010 General Election, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s programme of cuts, pay freezes and job losses in response to the economic crisis was far from a given. Serious attempts were made by the left to build a coordinated trade union campaign, including strike action, to oppose it. Unite, and McCluskey in particular, played a central role in preventing that.

In 2011, Unite failed to throw its weight behind the public sector pensions dispute, which was crucial if there was going to be a coordinated union fightback against austerity. It recommended that its local government members accept the government’s pensions offer, and only played a marginal role in the health workers’ strike. In May of that year, Unite also sold out the BASSA dispute with British Airways. In 2012, Unite’s leadership encouraged workers during the Ellesmere Port dispute to accept a reduction in terms and conditions at the threat of losing their jobs, rather than lead a fightback. In the same year, it cancelled a strike of Remploy workers against factory closures which led to almost 2,000 workers losing their jobs. McCluskey, throughout this time, gave radical speeches and supported demonstrations, but baulked at the national strike campaign that was needed.

Much has been made, by friends and enemies alike, of Unite and McCluskey’s support for Jeremy Corbyn in 2015-19. The union was a key bulwark of support for Corbyn when he was under attack from the Parliamentary Labour Party, the press and the party’s own officials. In fact, a key part of United Left’s political strategy under McCluskey has been to leverage Unite’s influence within Labour to win policy concessions.

However, it would be wrong to say that United Left’s role in the party has been consistently left wing. Despite often being in an antagonistic relationship with New Labour, Unite and its predecessors consistently supported Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The union was key to Ed Miliband’s election as leader in 2010, who then refused to back strikes or provide consistent opposition to austerity.

When Corbyn began his run in 2015, the Unite leadership initially supported New Labour apparatchik Andy Burnham for leader, only switching to Corbyn under mounting pressure from the membership. Steve Turner has made no secret of his intention to build bridges with Keir Starmer.

United Left’s political strategy, therefore, has largely been one of unconditional support for Labour, even if its policies have been detrimental to its members. Its inability, or unwillingness, to deliver for members on the industrial front leads it to call for them to invest all their hopes in a future Labour government. Many times, the union’s “wait for Labour” approach has meant holding back criticism, or even industrial action, for fear of adversely impacting the Labour Party’s electoral prospects.

Broad Left Strategy

United Left’s approach of a vacillatory attitude towards industrial action and reliance upon the Labour Party for a political strategy, is the result of its nature as a “broad left” organisation. The broad left strategy has long dominated the left of the British trade union movement and is a feature of virtually every union in Britain today. The idea, in basic terms, is for the left to unite to capture positions within a union, win control of its leadership, use these positions to pull the union movement leftwards and win concessions from capitalism and the state.

Trade unions are central to any Marxist strategy for revolutionary change, as they are mass organisations where workers can combine collectively at the point of production. They are the first line of defence and attack for workers against the bosses. Despite this, their purpose is to organise workers within the confines of the capitalist system and fight for better conditions for them. The trade union leaderships, therefore, play a mediatory role between workers and capitalists, looking to negotiate concessions without overturning the system entirely.

Unions in Britain have developed large apparatuses presided over by a professional staff – the trade union bureaucracy. The bureaucrats are rarely directly elected by workers, and often have not worked on the shop floor for years, if at all. They are usually better paid and much more comfortably off than the average worker. While they have an interest in maintaining and defending the union, they also fear the independent organisation of union members as threatening their own privileged positions and worry that radical activity will render their own role as mediators between workers and bosses obsolete. As they are reliant upon the union membership for their positions, they can be subjected to pressure from below, but when the level of struggle is low, they can be more responsive to pressure from the bosses and the state. The trade union bureaucracy, therefore, is a social grouping distinct from the mass of working-class people and can often have an antagonistic relationship to them.

Despite this, the bureaucracy does still have a left and a right wing. Some trade union bureaucrats, such as Unite general secretary candidate Gerard Coyne, pursue a line of total collaboration with the bosses and actively aim to sabotage any attempt at confrontation with them to preserve their privileged positions. The left-wing of the bureaucracy, however, does attempt to use its mediatory role to make gains for the membership and will employ limited industrial action to achieve that.

It would also be a mistake to believe that rank-and-file trade union members are more left-wing or radical than the bureaucracy and are only held back by the latter’s machinations. In periods of low levels of struggle the left of the bureaucracy will often, at least formally, be more radical than the average member. However, the left bureaucracy remains confined by its position between workers and capital, and it will always seek to keep members’ activity under its own control. Their method is always to win enough concessions to keep the membership happy while preventing all-out confrontation from taking place that may lead to the radical overhaul of the status quo within unions themselves.

It is these constraints that mean any alliance between revolutionary socialists and the trade union bureaucracy can only be temporary in nature. When the bureaucracy is in confrontation with the bosses, and organising workers to that effect, it should of course be supported. However, as McCluskey and United Left have proven time and again, there is always a danger that they will attempt to put a stop to such activity and cut a deal, or even abandon the fight altogether. On such occasions, if the membership is not organised to oppose the bureaucracy’s actions and struggle for control of the campaign or dispute there is little else that can be done to stop a sell-out.

Therefore, the way much of the left participates in, props up or even initiates broad left organisations such as United Left is a serious strategic mistake. United Left’s main purpose is to win and maintain positions within the trade union bureaucracy, and it thus has a direct interest in defending the actions of its officials and leadership from criticism. Left-wing denunciations of sell-out deals cut by McCluskey and his appointees are often met with threats of expulsion from United Left. Attempts to stand or support alternative candidates are derided as “splitting the left vote” and running the risk of “letting the right in”. Broad lefts, therefore, are disciplinary tools which the left bureaucracy uses to keep the left in line. Some on the left argue that until a rank-and-file movement is built, it is better to work within such formations to organise alongside potential allies. They fail to appreciate that one of the main functions of broad lefts is to prevent such a movement from developing in the first place and restrict the activity of those who may seek to build it.

Organise the Rank and File

A Marxist trade union strategy is centred upon the goal of building the self-activity of the working-class, building powerful organisations capable of challenging the bosses and linking the everyday struggles of the working class to the struggle for socialism. Our ultimate aim is the overthrow of the capitalist system in its entirety, and this can only be achieved by the mass mobilisation of the working-class and its organisation at the point of production. This means that all our activity in trade unions should be aimed at building rank-and-file members’ activity and organisation, both in the workplace and across our unions. This is why we must organise independently of the trade union bureaucracy, who actively attempt to suppress this.

That is not to say that a rank-and-file movement can be built simply at the whim of the left. There have been attempts in the recent past, and in other unions, to build rank-and-file networks independent of the left bureaucracy. Jerry Hicks ran two popular, though unsuccessful, general secretary campaigns against Len McCluskey, and prior to that against Derek Simpson. None of these resulted in any lasting rank-and-file organisation. The Independent Left has set itself up in PCS as an alternative to Serwotka’s broad left formation “Left Unity”. This has not resulted in sustained organisation amongst trade union members and has largely become an alternative election vehicle for far-left activists. Paul Holmes, just this year, ran a positive general secretary campaign in Unison, and a successful one to win a left majority on its NEC. There do not appear to be any real attempts to build a rank-and-file network out of this however, and it seems likely that Time for Real Change will, as well, become another electoral vehicle.

It is only when there is a heightened level of struggle in a workplace that the possibility for such organisations is likely to arise. If there is a sustained period of strikes and militancy in a workplace or industry, workers will often see the need to develop their own organisations, such as strike committees, to conduct them. A higher level of interest and investment in the outcome of trade union activity will lead to greater participation in the union’s structures. If the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy become clear, workers will see further need for the development of their own organisations independently of them.

However, such developments cannot be guaranteed to occur organically, independent of any intervention from militants. The numerous sell-outs and capitulations of the Unite bureaucracy have been allowed to occur precisely because such a process did not happen, or at least not to the extent necessary. The intervention of of radical trade unionists is pivotal to the development of independent rank-and-file organisation. Our ability to organise independently of the trade union bureaucracy to achieve this is therefore crucial.

It is the combination of the spontaneous development of working-class activity when trade union members come into confrontation with capital, represented by the bosses and the state, and the organised intervention of militants that can lead to the formation of a rank-and-file movement. The role of such militants must be to agitate for industrial activity and apply the lessons of past confrontations in both prosecuting the struggle against the bosses and the need for workers to control their own disputes through workers’ organisation independent of the trade union bureaucracy.

For socialists in Unite to focus on working within United Left and subjecting themselves to its discipline does nothing to further the interests of the rank and file members. While we should vote for the United Left candidate, Turner, to keep out Coyne, a victory for Turner would at best maintain the status quo within Unite. Where the left actively supports and advocates a broad left strategy it will end up, inevitably, tailing the left bureaucracy and providing left cover for their vacillations and capitulations, explaining away their inactivity; and thus becoming an impediment to the kind of movement that the trade union movement needs.

Instead, it is essential that those in Unite who agree with the need for a rank and file organisation campaign for one, laying the groundwork for such organisations to meet the challenges faced by workers thrown into struggle. Such a campaign would critique Unite’s strategy and propose a rank and file approach to the NHS pay dispute, resisting “fire and rehire” and workplace closures, and organising the unemployed ahead of cuts to Universal Credit and the end of the furlough scheme.

The union’s political strategy should also be addressed. Turner has made clear in his leadership campaign that he intends to pursue a closer relationship with the Labour Party’s rightward moving leader, Kier Starmer. Under Starmer’s leadership, Labour has sought to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of big business, including their dangerous demand for schools to remain open as cases were rising, in opposition to teachers’ unions. As the government moves to make the working class pay the cost of the pandemic, our union leaders should demand the Labour Party fights for the interests of workers rather than side with the bosses.  

Unite organises across the workforce, from electricians to call centre workers. The size and scope of the union presents opportunities for solidarity work like fundraising for disputes in other sectors and learning from other groups of workers. Where sections of workers are at risk of being sold out, branch motions from other sectors can put pressure on the leadership to approve industrial action and demand that control of the dispute be democratised. Similarly, such a campaign could bring motions to the union conference motions prosing a worker’s wage for union leaders and thoroughgoing democratic reform of the industrial unit.

Under a Tory government preparing for a new round of austerity, the working class faces deep cuts to public services and a bonfire of jobs and conditions. Under such conditions we have seen before how groups of workers demand, and take, action, from the public sector pensions dispute to the Sparks. The role of the largest trade union in Britain must be to resist these attacks, not to negotiate piecemeal reprieves for its stronger sectors. The crisis of leadership at the top of the trade unions can be overcome through rank and file organisation if we begin now to build the foundations for such a movement.


Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter