For more debate and discussion about the Unite General Secretary election, see here.
Nominations for the Unite the Union General Secretary election closed last week. All four candidates secured enough branch or workplace nominations for a place on the ballot paper. The minimum number needed was 172.
Howard Beckett (Head of Unite’s Legal Department) had 328. Gerard Coyne (Unite West Midlands Regional Secretary until his dismissal in 2017) had 196, Sharon Graham (Head of Unite’s Organising Department) 349, and Steve Turner (Unite Assistant General Secretary) 525.
Coyne is the candidate of the union’s right wing, the Labour Party right wing, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. In the 2017 General Secretary election he came close to beating McCluskey, winning 41.5% against McCluskey’s 45.5%.
There is therefore a real risk of a repeat of the recent Unison General Secretary election: The right-wing candidate, Christine McAnea, won with 48% of the vote, less than the total vote of the three left candidates.
And Coyne is much more right-wing than McAnea. This would make the consequences of a Coyne victory even more of a setback, not just for the left in Unite but for the labour movement as a whole.
But, runs the counter-argument, turnout in the 2017 election was particularly low. It fell from just under 15% in the previous election (2013) to just over 12%, and McCluskey’s vote slumped from 145,000 to 54,000.
Many Unite members had been alienated by the fact that the sitting “one-term-only” General Secretary (i.e. McCluskey) had called yet another election, simply to prolong his term of office. They therefore either abstained or, in some cases, voted Coyne as a ‘protest vote’.
This argument certainly has substance and carries weight. But it also carries a high risk. And it does it change the basic fact that if there were a single left candidate on the ballot paper, then this would minimise the chance of Coyne winning.
Moreover, the total number of nominations announced last week (1,398) is actually slightly less than the total (1,448) in the 2017 election. The presence of three left candidates bidding for nominations has not stimulated more branches to submit nominations.
On the other hand, there is no necessary correlation between the total number of nominations and voter turnout. The 1,448 nominations submitted in 2017 were more than the number submitted in 2013 – in fact, 2017 was a record high – and yet voter turnout fell by some 20%.
A single left candidate is substantially preferable to the real risk of letting the right win. But there is no sign of any of the three left candidates being willing to step down. And,it should be acknowledged, Turner and Graham both have good grounds for refusing to stand down.
Turner was selected by the United Left to be their candidate (beating Beckett) and can thereby legitimately claim to have a ‘mandate’ to stand as a candidate. He has also picked up the most nominations by far.
Graham can legitimately point to the fact that she is the only female candidate in a union which has never had a female General Secretary. She also claims that the total membership of branches which have nominated her is greater than the membership of Turner’s nominating branches.
The size of Beckett’s ego, his anointment as “the clear choice of the Celtic nations”, and his attempts to portray himself as the greatest working-class leader since Jim Larkin make it virtually impossible for him to stand down. His band of faithful followers on Skwawkbox would never understand.
On the other hand, Beckett’s total lack of ethical principles, moral scruples and personal integrity also make him the candidate most likely to blink first (provided he was offered something at a suitably elevated level of remuneration as compensation).
But there is no democratic process which could decide on a single left candidate. In fact, the current situation is far worse than that.
McCluskey has convened meetings of the three candidates and members of their ‘teams’ to try to ensure just one of their names appears on the ballot paper.
But meetings behind closed doors – with the outgoing scandal-ridden General Secretary, who nearly delivered the union to the right wing in 2017, appointing himself kingmaker – are the opposite of how a healthy and democratic left would try to secure a single unity candidate.
Some Unite activists also believe that McCluskey is less concerned with saving Unite from Coyne than with saving himself from Coyne. If there are skeletons in the cupboard from McCluskey’s terms of office, then Coyne – sacked by McCluskey in 2017 – can be counted on to publicise them.
And McCluskey playing the role of kingmaker means that there is not a level playing field. Beckett is McCluskey’s favoured candidate. Turner is also ‘close’ to McCluskey, in the sense that he has been one of McCluskey’s Assistant General Secretaries since 2013.
This places Graham at a disadvantage, reinforced by the fact that McCluskey has never shown any interest in the idea of “Step aside, brother.”
And the dilemma now facing the left in Unite is the product of how the union has evolved under kingmaker McCluskey himself.
There were many positives in McCluskey’s platform when he was first elected General Secretary in 2010, including his commitment to be a “one-term-only” General Secretary. But eleven years on it is a very different story.
McCluskey now wheels and deals like any other union bureaucrat. The “fightback union” shows ever less signs of fighting back against the Tories and employers. Increasingly the formerly despised GMB shows a greater level of workplace militancy (and recruitment).
The promised “lay-membership-leadership” has steadily been replaced by top-down leadership, with the United Left, which campaigned to ensure McCluskey’s victory in 2010, increasingly taking its lead from McCluskey.
Only now, and too late in the day, has the United Left stood up to McCluskey, by backing Turner rather than McCluskey’s favoured son, Howard Beckett.
While the Legal Departments of other unions won important victories (Unison – scrapping Tribunal fees; GMB – Asda equal pay claim), Unite’s Legal Department (proprietor: Howard Beckett) squandered millions on no-hope cases to defend the vanity of the union’s leadership.
Bureaucratic fixes were increasingly used by McCluskey to avoid democratic debate.
Criticised by the Scottish region of the United Left, McCluskey gave behind-the-scenes backing to the Scottish Unite bureaucracy’s creation of the ‘Progressive United Left Scotland’, which now has no role in life other than to be Howard Beckett’s bag-carrier.
Challenged by rank-and-file candidate Ian Allinson in the 2017 General Secretary election, McCluskey’s solution to prevent further such challenges was to back the rule-change which increased the number of branch nominations needed to get on the ballot paper from 50 to 5% (currently: 172).
There are exceptions to the above generalisations. And, even if unsuccessful, there has been opposition to the direction which Unite has travelled under McCluskey.
The proposed rule-change for General Secretary elections defeated at the 2019 Rules Revision Conference – “Add a new sentence at the end of section 16.12 of the Rulebook: The Single Transferable Vote system of voting will be used in the election of the General Secretary” – came from an AWL Unite member.
AWL members also argued against the rule change raising the threshold of branch nominations for a place on a General Secretary ballot paper and sought to win the United Left to that position, as well as challenging attempts to rewrite the history of the Sally Nailard sexual harassment claim.
McCluskey has ended up turning Unite into the trade union equivalent of Yugoslavia. As long as Tito was alive, the divisions were papered over and the country held together. But once he died – although he too was probably a “one-term-only” General Secretary – the divisions exploded.
And the brutal reality now is that if there were to be the name of just one left candidate on the General Secretary ballot paper, the only ‘mechanism’ which could deliver that is McCluskey’s back-room talks.
It is a process which is rotten to the core – and thereby a fitting end to McCluskey’s increasingly autocratic reign as General Secretary.
And even the minimal elements of transparency which could be built into such a process – such as full reports of the discussions and time for candidates to consult their supporters – are absent
The risk of a Coyne victory might be exaggerated. It is almost certainly being abused, as it was in 2017 to try to force Ian Allinson to withdraw from the General Secretary contest. And McCluskey-brokered talks are the opposite of how a healthy and democratic left would seek to achieve a single left candidate.
But none of that impacts on the imperative of preventing Coyne from taking Unite back to the days of one of its predecessor unions, the very right-wing EETPU.