Voting in the election for the general secretary’s position in Unite began on 18 March, with the ballot due to close on Friday 12 April.
The incumbent, Len McCluskey, is re-standing. His only opponent is Jerry Hicks, a former shop steward at a Rolls Royce plant in Bristol.
Workers’ Liberty members in Unite are backing a vote for McCluskey because he is the candidate of the United Left grouping in which we are involved.
While on some issues we agree with Hicks against McCluskey (such as union officials taking an average worker’s wage), we do not believe Hicks’s campaign offers a serious alternative or a credible attempt to build a rank-and-file network in Unite. Hicks got an impressive vote in the 2010 general secretary election, but did not use it to build any lasting network or permanent organisation. On some issues, such as the question of workplace branches and full rights for retired members within the union, we think Hicks’s platform is wrong against McCluskey’s.
McCluskey has also overseen a reorientation of Unite’s political strategy that commits the union, at least on paper, to a more combative and assertive attitude towards the Labour leaders within party structures.
Workers’ Liberty wants to see that strategy properly implemented and taken further.
Hicks, who has a more sectarian attitude to union self-assertion within Labour Party structures, would put the brakes on this strategy.
We do not, however, agree with those on the left, such as Counterfire and the International Socialist Group in Scotland, who heap praise on McCluskey and claim that he is a “grassroots general secretary”.
The political culture inside Unite has improved under his leadership, and the union is on the whole more willing to back its members in taking industrial action. But he remains the chief administrator of a bureaucratic regime that, like all union bureaucracies, must ultimately be broken down and replaced with structures based on rank-and-file control. McCluskey’s election address, which smeared Jerry Hicks by association with the Socialist Workers Party without making any attempt to explain or justify this politically, was a crass and unnecessary lowering of the election’s tone (unnecessarily personalised criticisms have been used by both camps in the election).
With 1,089 branch nominations to Hicks’s 136, it is almost certain that McCluskey will win. The real battle for Unite’s future is not in this election but in ongoing fights to build member-led workplace and industrial organisations that can take on employers.