Britain  •  Industrial  •  Unite the union

Vote McCluskey – but organise the rank and file

07 February 2017

UNITE GENERAL Secretary Len McCluskey has triggered an early election campaign for the position he currently holds.

The three candidates, McCluskey, Gerard Coyne and Ian Allinson, have until 17 February to gain an undemocratically high 50 branch nominations to get on the ballot paper. Members then have from 27 March to 19 April to vote.

Unite and Labour

By trade union standards this is a very political election, especially for the two main candidates, McCluskey and Coyne, who are bound to get on the ballot paper.

McCluskey is a vocal, if recently critical supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour right, who want to oust Corbyn, back Coyne. McCluskey supported Jeremy in both leadership election campaigns, although it was Unite’s national executive rather than McCluskey himself who initially recommended that Unite members vote for Corbyn in 2015. Momentum has also called for a vote for Len as an ally against the right.

Luke Akehurst’s influential right-wing blog Labour First supports Coyne. So too has deputy Labour leader Tom Watson and the Blairite Progress group. All three supported the botched coup against Corbyn by 179 Labour MPs last summer, and Owen Smith in the resulting leadership election.

If you want a return to New Labour, with front bench Labour MPs denouncing strikes and crossing picket lines, then vote Coyne.

It is true that Len McCluskey has used his influence to pressure Jeremy to the right: over nuclear power, Trident and free movement of labour. He even told the Mirror: “If we get to 2019 and opinion polls are still awful… the truth is everybody would examine that situation, including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell… These two are not egomaniacs, they are not desperate to cling on to power for power’s sake.”

Coyne hypocritically latched onto these remarks, calling Len a “puppet master”, insinuating that he meddles too much in politics and that he misappropriated union funds to back Corbyn. Coyne evidently feels that this should be the prerogative of disloyal right wing MPs, and that Unite’s 1.4 million members should not interfere.

Unreliable though McCluskey is, his replacement by a right-winger will undermine the prospects for the socialist transformation of Labour, increasing pressure from the right on Corbyn’s team and hastening his demise.

Wrong challenge, wrong time

In this context Ian Allinson’s candidacy is untimely to say the least. Ian is an honourable rank and file activist. He leads Fujistu IT workers, who have recently taken 14 days of strike action against redundancies. His platform pledges are fully supportable.

While Allinson admits to “some progress during Len McCluskey’s time as General Secretary”, he also rightly points to McCluskey’s shortcomings: most recently, not bringing Unite NHS members out in support of junior doctors, failing to mobilise against the Trade Union Act and letting Tata steel bosses off the hook when they should have been nationalised.

But Ian has no strategy to organise the rank and file independently of the union bureaucracy. He stood aside from previous left challenger Jerry Hicks’ ultimately failed attempt to build Unite Grassroots Left. Apart from pledging to only take his current wage and avoid the perks of office, Ian offers no concrete means by which Unite could really be democratised and members placed in control of their officials and their disputes.

And despite his telling criticisms of Len’s lukewarm support for Corbyn – only if he can win the next election, and threatening to bring back the failed right if he can’t – Ian does not even mention the Labour Party in his material. His is ultimately a form of apolitical trade unionism: militant, but with a self-imposed restriction not to support moves to win working class political power.

Yes, we need a rank and file movement; yes, we need to organise opposition to McCluskey whenever he obstructs action or pushes Labour further to the right. But right now, that can be done best by putting McCluskey back in office and not letting the right in by splitting the left vote.

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