“We, the lay members of PULS, stand in solidarity with our left officers and organisers. We know they will always do the right thing.” So says a recent open letter recently from “Progressive United Left Scotland” (PULS), a faction in Unite the Union launched in 2016 because of the supposed demise of the existing United Left Scotland (ULS).
PULS purports to be an organisation committed to a lay member-led trade union. But if the bureaucrats are always right, who needs the rank-and-file? Although signed off by the PULS chair, the letter is in the characteristic style of Mark Lyon, who set up PULS. Lyon is a Unite full-timer. 36 of the 39 Unite full-timers in Scotland are members of PULS, plus all employees of Unite’s Organising Department in Scotland.
PULS’s main effort has been focussed on ousting ULS activists from their positions on Unite’s constitutional committees, shutting down branches in which ULS activists are based, and barring them from holding office. Its campaigning record reached a nadir with last year’s Glasgow City Council equal pay strike.
Unite members were not balloted to take part in the strike. And there was no Unite presence on the biggest women’s protest in Glasgow since the Rent Strike of 1915. The role of “rank-and-file” members of PULS is effectively that of nodding dogs. Its nominal office-bearers are little better than glove puppets for the bureaucracy. Shamefully, the United Left national leadership has given PULS a free run from the outset.
No matter how many decisions of PULS flew in the face of United Left requests, decisions and policies, members of the United Left leadership were always on hand to excuse their actions. In mid-February a Great Re-Unification Meeting between PULS and the ULS was to have taken place, brokered by the United Left leadership. PULS and the ULS both agreed to the meeting. ULS suggested that Unite full-timers should not have a vote at the meeting. A decision on that was to have been taken at a meeting of the United Left National Coordinators’ Committee. The mere fact that the ULS suggestion was to be discussed was seized on by PULS as a pretext for pulling out of the Great Re-Unification Meeting.
The PULS letter marked the latest and, hopefully, final chapter in the saga which has been underway since the summer of 2016. But that is unlikely to be the case. The creation and existence of PULS is inseparable from the question of The Succession – building a machine to deliver the vote for the bureaucratic-”left” candidate in the next Unite General Secretary election. The ULS was too off-message to be relied upon to turn out the vote for McCluskey’s choice of heir (probably Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner). A bloc under the thumb of full-timers, on the other hand, fits the bill.
At a national level the United Left has also been laying the groundwork for The Succession. At the moment a candidate needs 50 branch nominations to make it onto the ballot paper in a General Secretary election. But a model rule-change motion being circulated by the United Left for this year’s Unite Rules Conference proposes that a candidate will need 5% of the total number of Unite branches – amounting to around a hundred. Another model rule-change motion proposes that where workplaces have a branch of their own, they can submit either a workplace nomination (like any other workplace where Unite is recognised) or a workplace-branch nomination (like any other Unite branch), but not both. Both these proposed rule changes are aimed at keeping rank-and-file candidates off the ballot paper.
In the 2017 election, for example, Ian Allinson was able to scrape onto the ballot paper with just over 50 nominations. That wasn’t meant to happen. And the proposed rule changes will make sure that it won’t happen again. General Secretary elections will end up as a “choice” between different bureaucrats, with the size and effectiveness of their machine counting for more than their politics and election platform. This is the exact opposite of what a real rank-and-file campaign should be advocating. Perhaps PULS and the national leadership of the United Left are not that far apart after all?