Divided Unite

16 Jul 2021

DRD Partner and long standing Unite trade union member, Pete Bowyer takes an in-depth look at this year’s forgotten, but critical, election for the new General Secretary which declares on 26 August.

The most important election of 2021

You could easily be forgiven for missing it, but the most important election of 2021 has just got underway: the ballot to be the next General Secretary of the behemoth Unite trade union which may well prove pivotal to British politics over the next few years.

Unite under Len

Unite, the biggest trade union in Britain with 1.4 million members, was formed in 2007. Following a few years of joint leadership, leftwinger Len McCluskey (‘Red Len’) won the 2010 election pledging to unite the union and promising to stay for just one term. He’s been there ever since, yet failed to heal the divides.

Unite’s power comes no longer from its industrial might, but from its political power. It is the largest affiliate to the Labour Party and is the party’s largest financial backer. Len has used that leverage ruthlessly. In 2010, it was the votes of Unite members in the trade union category that ensured Ed Miliband squeezed in as leader of the party ahead of his more centrist brother David (who had the backing of the majority of MPs and party members).

Whilst being outwardly supportive of Ed, Len frequently raised the spectre of withdrawing union funding if the party did not move in a more overtly socialist direction playing to voters worst fears that Labour is in the pocket of the unions. The result? The hung Parliament of 2010, turned into a Conservative overall majority at the 2015 General Election with Labour making net losses of 26 seats.

Backing Corbyn

But in defeat, Len sensed victory, only first the party had to elect a “real socialist”. Step forward, Jeremy Corbyn. McCluskey was a true believer all along, enthusiastically supporting the new party leader and denigrating Corbyn’s enemies.

Most of all, the union provided cash to keep the party afloat. And lots of it. During Corbyn’s leadership the union donated over £20 million to the Labour Party which may not have provided the best return on investment. Other investments by the union have been queried in recent years too. The union stood behind hard-left “news” site Skwawkbox when it libeled moderate Labour MP, Anna Turley which cost Unite members over £2 million. Moreover, its ballooning £98 million investment into a spanking new hotel and conference centre in Birmingham which McCluskey described as “a powerful resource for working people for many years to come” raised eyebrows and could yet come back to haunt the union’s leadership.

Unite’s power comes no longer from its industrial might, but from its political power. It is the largest affiliate to the Labour Party and is the party’s largest financial backer

The Judean People’s Front vs The People’s Front of Judea

Questions over financial mismanagement and political posturing have become central to the current General Secretary election campaign. In scenes that could have come straight from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, Sharon Turner, the only woman in the race, occupies one corner of the far left. She is backed by The Socialist Party (formerly, ‘Militant’), ‘Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century’ and ‘Socialist Worker’, the in-house organ of the Trotskyist, Socialist Workers Party.

Not to be outdone though is current Assistant General Secretary, Steve Turner. A former member of Militant in the 1980s, he is now backed by The Communist Party of Britain (who are orthodox Marxist-Leninists, so despise Trotskyists). Turner narrowly won the primary election by three votes to be the candidate of the ‘United Left’ faction against fellow Assistant General Secretary, Howard Beckett who, if anything, is even more hardline. In a show of unity, Beckett challenged the result and initially refused to stand down in favour of Turner, only subsequently doing so following some behind the scenes arm twisting as they belatedly recognised the threat of splitting the far-left vote three ways in a first-past-the-post election.

Turner, who has described Unite’s new hotel and conference centre as “world class” (which it ought to be given the cost) is also backing investment by Unite in, err, a new television station, Unite TV to circumvent the “biased mainstream” media. The channel will be broadcast 24/7, with additional live streaming from hot spots around the world, and with a television studio in each of the union’s twelve regions and nations. This is not a drill, folks.

An answer to Keir’s prayers?

The final candidate remaining in the race is Gerard Coyne, but only just. He scraped onto the ballot after the union increased the number of workplace nominations required from 50 to 150, widely perceived as an attempt to prevent Coyne from making it through. Coyne came surprisingly close to beating McCluskey in the last General Secretary election in 2017 which he lost by just 45% to 41%.

Depending on how you view it, Coyne is seen as a moderate who backs Keir Starmer or a raving rightwinger who writes for “The S*n”. He has demanded an independent audit into the hotel and conference centre debacle, would scrap the nonsense TV project and has vowed to concentrate on jobs, pay and conditions for union members, not being a “backseat driver of the Labour Party”. His hopes rest on motivating ordinary union members that wouldn’t normally vote, rather than it being confined to traditionally more leftwing union activists – given that a derisory 12% of members voted last time, there is plenty of scope for bettering it this time.

The one person who has kept silent in all of this is Keir Starmer, and rightly so. In public, he says it’s simply a matter for Unite members, but be in no doubt that privately he is praying for a Coyne victory. With the second and third biggest unions, Unison and the GMB both recently electing moderate candidates as General Secretaries, he will be hoping that Unite completes the triumvirate. If so, 42.5% of the vote at party conferences will be in their three hands. With constituency Labour parties also swinging heavily towards the centre this year, Starmer will have a clear road to push through significant party reforms to return it to electability. If not, the wilderness years may stretch long into the future. The choice could not be more stark.

Photo Credits: The Telegraph