What’s left in Unite?

Submitted by Newcastle on 10 September, 2009 - 10:59 Author: By David Kirk

United Left, the new united “broad left” in Unite, held its hustings to decide who should be its candidate for the post of General Secretary in Manchester on 5 September.

When TGWU and Amicus merged to form Unite, T&G general secretary Tony Woodley and Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson became “joint general secretaries”. The merger terms say that Simpson must retire on 23 December 2010 and Woodley before 23 December 2011.

The first proper Unite general secretary is to be elected some time in 2010, and will take office when Woodley retires, on 24 December 2011 or earlier.

Les Bayliss, an official close to Simpson, is said to be the leading right-wing candidate for the job.

The 5 September meeting voted by a majority of about three to one — with about 300 present — to back Len McCluskey as United Left candidate. It was not, however, straightforward or harmonious.

This was never going to be an easy process; history and personal feuds, impenetrable to the uninitiated, seem to divide some members more than the huge political differences in the organisation.

An elaborate weighted voting mechanism was planned for the hustings (but, thankfully, never used) and to gain entrance to the hustings you were meant to be verified as a bona-fide supporter of United Left by a “regional coordinator”.

Sadly, the regional organisation of the United Left is not lively enough to make that unproblematic.

Some 20 people were excluded from the meeting on the grounds that they had never turned up to meetings before. Others were excluded who were just late. Jerry Hicks walked out, citing the exclusions. The meeting narrowly voted to let everyone in, so he came back. Then the chair moved that only those who had been given a voting slip could vote, and Hicks walked out again, along with 20 of his supporters.

According to people who walked out with Hicks, they had a meeting in another room at which they voted unanimously for Hicks to stand. Hicks did not confirm he would stand but it is probable he will.

It does look as if the United Left shot themselves in the foot. Hicks supporters can paint the hustings decision as illegitimate, though Hicks would never have got more than 40-50 votes out of 300, even with the excluded votes.

Rob Williams condemned the exclusions and refused to confirm if he would stand down if he didn’t win. Williams is the convenor at Linamar in Swansea who was dismissed by his bosses for daring to stand up for his members but was reinstated when the workers voted for strike action. He also played a key role in the Visteon dispute.

Because he represents the kind of rank-and-file militancy we fight for, our bulletin called for a vote for Rob. However, there were problems with his platform. There was a pledge to take an average worker’s wage but nothing to tackle the perks and pay of the other officers. The question and answer session also mainly revolved around disaffiliation from the Labour Party. Williams pushed the Socialist Party’s line on disaffiliation — as the only way of reclaiming the union.

While we do not oppose disaffiliation moves, this alone will not turn Unite into the genuine class-struggle organisation needed; that requires the building of a mass rank-and-file movement.

Len McCluskey is currenty Assistant General Secretary. In his youth he was a Millitant Tendency supporter, but there was nothing in McCluskey’s speech or answers that current joint General Secretary Tony Woodley would not have said.

The fact that the left in Unite supports a candidate whose main appeal seems to be that he will continue the policies of Woodley shows the vast task ahead in the union facing revolutionary socialists.

In the coming election (and in the run up to the first Unite Rules Revision conference in 2010) Workers’ Liberty Unite activists will seek to constantly raise the issue of what kind of union the left must fight for, and what kind of left we need.

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