Perhaps the strangest thing about the campaign so far is the failure of the other candidates or their supporters to engage with the ideas I’m putting forward for making Unite more effective.
Do they agree that we need fortnightly email bulletins to all activists, not filtered through officers and committees? Would creating case studies of members’ successes to save us wasting so much effort trying to reinvent the wheel be a good idea? Do we need to restructure the union to provide better support for the 80% of workplaces in employers that span multiple regions, and where our organising is currently so much less effective? Do we need to build a civil rights movement to challenge an increasingly repressive state rather than fighting anti-union legislation in isolation? Do we need to integrate our equality work better with our industrial agenda?
Apart from Len McCluskey describing my advocacy of workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally as naive (he argues that free movement undermines wage rates in some sectors and perhaps trade unionism in general) and defence diversification (Unite’s policy) today as pie in the sky, opposition has mainly centred around two points.
Firstly, some argue I lack the experience to be an effective General Secretary because I am a workplace activist rather than a senior union officer. There is no lack of people at the top of the union who have experience at the top of the union. There is a lack of people at the top of Unite who have (in recent decades) shared the experiences and frustrations of members at the sharp end. Let’s not forget that Mark Serwotka, the PCS General Secretary, was a workplace activist when elected. Few would argue that this has prevented him being an effective union leader.
Secondly, people worry about “splitting the left vote” and letting Gerard Coyne in. This is a more legitimate concern, because Coyne would be a disaster for Unite. Coyne is he acting as a mouthpiece for the Labour right, the people who lost the last two elections after eroding Labour support by backing anti-union legislation, opposing members defending their jobs, pay and conditions, leading us to an illegal war, and ramping up PFI and privatisation in our NHS. Coyne is contributing to the scapegoating of immigrants by arguing for more immigration controls, and supports the UK having weapons of mass destruction. Industrially, his approach is based on the “servicing” model of trade unionism which contributed so much to union decline from the late 1980s. This treats members as passive customers of the union, rather than membership activity and participation as the source of union power and influence. When he talks about “value for money” for members, he isn’t talking about how Unite can help members build more collective power, he’s talking about freezing subs for a couple of years. There’s little point having a cheap and ineffective union. We need a strong union. Both politically and industrially Coyne is trying to turn the clock back to approaches which have failed in the past.
There is a certain irony in calls to back McCluskey because of the fear that Coyne could win. After all, it is McCluskey who has created this risk through his undemoctratic maneouvre of forcing this unnecessary election in a bid to hold onto office.
It’s a sign of the weakness of the case for backing McCluskey that his supporters fall back so readily on the “split the vote” argument. This New Statesman article identifies many of McCluskey’s shortcomings, but still concludes that he must be supported because of fear of Coyne.
The influence of the anti-union press, who mainly back Coyne, was cited as one reason why he’s such a threat. I’m really pleased that unlike last time Len McCluskey has agreed to participate in hustings. These are really important to ensure the debate is conducted on the basis of the real issues, rather than distorted through the media’s obsession with bashing Corbyn. I’m urging the other candidates to work with me to ensure there are hustings in every region, livestreamed so that every member has the opportunity to hear and weight the arguments for themselves. Hustings can further expose and marginalise Coyne. Even if Unite doesn’t organise regional hustings centrally, there’s nothing to stop groups of branches and workplaces following the example of Rolls Royce Derby in setting up a meeting and inviting all three candidates.
In previous Unite elections, Jerry Hicks, standing on a similar basis to me, beat the right wing candidates. Len McCluskey has had years to consolidate his grip on the union machine. His endorsements, which encompass almost the entire top of the union, reflect his success in that endeavour. It could be a sign of how weak McCluskey’s supporters believe his record is that they still fear his defeat, despite incumbency and the manipulation of the election process. To some extent it is just the usual argument trotted out to back a weak candidate facing opposition from the left – it is worth remembering that his supporters used the same arguments in previous elections and were proved wrong when left challengers beat the right.
Part of the appeal of the “splitting the vote” argument is that has a grain of truth. There will be some members who will support me who would support McCluskey if there were no better option – I would be one of those members myself. But this is not the whole picture. The idea that there is a “left vote” which is McCluskey’s by right displays unjustified arrogance. The votes belong to members, not to General Secretaries. There is no fixed left vote – this is not a zero-sum game. There are those who would not vote at all if the choice was between two unappealing establishment candidates, but who are supporting me. Turnout in union elections is appallingly low and it would be lower still if this was just a choice between establishment candidates offering more of the same or turning the clock back. There are also those who are sufficiently disenchanted with the status quo that they cannot countenance supporting McCluskey. If there was no left challenge Coyne find it much easier to hoover up all discontent, even though he offers nothing better.
Defence of the status quo is bad place for the left to be. Nobody gets active in a union because they are happy with the status quo. People get active because they are angry, they find some hope, and they can see something they can do that has at least some chance of making a difference. We should not leave it to the right to give voice to justified discontent. That was a problem in the referendum debate. In the USA the Democrats chose the status quo in the form of Clinton, instead of a radical voice in the shape of Sanders, and Clinton proved unable to beat Trump. The same conservative instinct led McCluskey to back Burnham rather than Corbyn when he first stood, for fear of Kendall.
Our movement cannot keep being afraid of its shadow. We have to raise our expectations. The current election presents an opportunity. Far from my candidacy splitting the left vote, McCluskey and Coyne are splitting the establishment vote, creating an opportunity for members to push for real, positive change. If it was a bombshell when Mark Serwotka won the leadership of PCS, it would be an earthquake in the movement if members put a left workplace activist at the head of Unite. And given the election results of the last eighteen months, perhaps it might be time to buy a seismometer.