By Steve White, on behalf of the Marxist World Editorial Board
Len McCluskey recently announced that he would be resigning as General Secretary of Unite, forcing an election for the position. However, he is reapplying for the post. This is the second time that McCluskey has decided to force an early election, the first being in 2013. This means the next election would have been due in 2018. We need to wonder why he has felt the need to do this now on two occasions.
In 2013, two candidates stood for election: McCluskey and Jerry Hicks, who campaigned as a grassroots activist. Both candidates were generally viewed to be broadly ‘of the Left’ although it would be fair to say that Hicks was the more radical, standing for the repeal of anti-union laws and confronting them when necessary, the election of all officials, and the General Secretary on an average member’s wage. There was no candidate from what would generally be considered ‘the Right’ of the union.
At the time, I was a member of the Socialist Party (SP) who supported McCluskey over Hicks in this election. The argument was made that there had been positive changes under McCluskey’s stewardship within the union – which was true compared to the dire position it had been in prior to this. The SP was, and still is, active within United Left and McCluskey was their candidate. Hicks decided not to participate within this grouping. The history behind this goes back to 2010 when the SP also supported McCluskey against Hicks, although this time a third right-wing candidate also stood. An exchange of letters published in The Socialist in August 2010 goes into more detail on both sides’ positions.
The SP leadership had a vision, and still have, that they could gain significant influence, if not control, of United Left, in the same way as they had within the PCS union. They were also looking to build links with union leaders to woo them into supporting TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – the parliamentary collaboration between, primarily the RMT, SP, SWP and ISN which stood mainly councillors in local elections on a “100% no cuts” platform). At the time, I bought into these arguments and hoped for more to come from McCluskey’s leadership whilst recognising its obvious shortcomings.
So, what has McCluskey’s record been since 2013?
Later that same year, the first major test came with the Grangemouth dispute. The refinery was operating at a loss and the prospect of closure was announced by its owners, Ineos. Due to the flawed approach of McCluskey’s leadership the workers were forced to accept a three year no-strike deal and pay freeze (in real terms a pay cut). The union completely miscalculated the nature of this dispute, believing that they could wrest concessions from Ineos and that the company were simply being ‘too greedy’ without understanding the dispute within the context of a crisis of capitalism and instead calling for occupation and nationalisation.
As Richard Seymour commented at the time:
The union’s retreat was humiliating. They conceded everything: pay freezes, an end to final salary pensions, the end of full-time union convenors on site, and no strikes for three years. Employers across the country will look enviously on what Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire boss of Ineos, has achieved (Guardian, December 2013).
The following year in my home town of Northampton there was a dispute at Northampton General Hospital where biomedical staff were locked out unless they signed new contracts with worse conditions equating to a 15% pay cut. From the offset, McCluskey was keen to resolve this dispute at almost any cost. Instead of calling on wider support with other Unite workers or other NHS staff in other unions, a deal was made with the management. The details of this deal were kept secret and the question has to be asked: for whose benefit? These workers were new to industrial action and therefore put their trust in the officials but were badly let down. Unite officially supported the workers’ actions and indeed paid them ‘strike pay’. As a result, the dispute was very much in the hands of the officials of the union, not the workers themselves.
In order to try and be as fair as possible, it would be wrong to say that there have been no victories under McCluskey. But were these actually due to his leadership?
Unite Housing workers at One Housing and St. Mungo’s were involved in long disputes where victories were achieved. But there were excellent shop stewards on the ground who campaigned and gained support within and outside of Unite. My own London ITC branch donated over £1,000 to the strike fund and I’m sure many other branches did too.
Other victories tend to be limited to legal challenges in the courts simply ensuring existing legislation is not flouted by companies, such as the decision that UK companies now need to include overtime when calculating holiday pay (Guardian, November 2014), and the clarification of the position of workers in the ‘gig economy’, such as Uber and Deliveroo workers who have been defined as self-employed despite being contractually bound to work exclusively for these companies and therefore refused the normal rights of employees (Guardian, October 2016).
So, back to the here and now. This time McCluskey is being challenged by the right-wing Gerard Coyne and the grassroots left-wing candidate, Ian Allinson. The SP love-in with McCluskey continues. He once again has their virtually uncritical support coupled with lavish praise. This time, however, they have omitted to even mention that Allinson is standing to their readers! Despite this omission of fact, they appear to be taking the same popular frontism stand as they did in 2010. Yet in 2010, Hicks came second to McCluskey ahead of the right-wing Les Bayliss. The article states:
Under his [McCluskey’s] leadership, the union has taken a more militant stance with a whole number of disputes. It has been far more responsive to rank and file pressure, particularly in construction, which was once dominated by right-wing officials. On his watch, no repudiation letters have been issued for unofficial action. Actually, some have been sanctioned, such as on Crossrail in the last few weeks (The Socialist, December 2016).
I will just say ‘Grangemouth’ and ‘biomedical workers’ once again.
McCluskey is an opportunist who will bend whichever the political wind is blowing. In the first Labour Party leadership election where Corbyn won, he initially supported Andy Burnham, who has made statements which would not sound out of place in UKIP. It was only once he realised that only Corbyn could win and his own executive supported Corbyn that he has been a ‘loyal supporter’! It seems even more bizarre that the SP are supporting McCluskey when they are still clinging to the idea of standing TUSC candidates against Labour Party ones electorally.
Whilst acknowledging that the press will play this up, once again McCluskey has just made public comments, which in the kindest of terms can only be referred to as ‘unhelpful’: suggesting that Corbyn could stand down. Even if he is given the benefit of the doubt regarding political maneuvering and the hedging of bets, this shows him to be irredeemably a part of the Labour aristocracy. (Mirror, January 2017)
McCluskey does not believe in a socialist future but the continuation of the same inherently crisis-ridden system responsible for workers’ problems. He is very much wedded to the idea of partnerships with the bosses, as his ‘march of the makers’ speech indicated (Labour List, April 2016).
As a result, and in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, he supports the retention of Trident simply to save jobs without the vision that these highly-skilled workers could and should be retrained under a planned economy.
Consequently, the Marxist World Editorial Board is supporting Ian Allinson as the only rank-and-file candidate. He supports the democratisation of the union with elected officials and the wider involvement of members so desperately needed and has pledged to stay on his current wage. He is a dedicated socialist who has supported Corbyn from the outset. However, as Ian correctly points out:
backing Corbyn through the Labour Party structures is not enough. Corbyn faces massive opposition from the establishment. His best chance of success is if there is a real movement of resistance to Tory policies at grassroots level. ‘Wait for Jeremy’ is not good enough when our rights, jobs and services are under attack every day (ian4unite website, December 2016).
‘More of the same’ under McCluskey will not be enough to defend workers in the increasing crisis which capitalism will suffer over the coming five years. Again in Ian’s own words,
There have been too many missed opportunities. Why was there no call for action or even a national demonstration in defence of the NHS when the Junior Doctors had the government on the ropes? Why was the momentum over public sector pensions frittered away? Why did we waste the opportunity around the London Olympics to smash the illegal blacklist? Why did we not call effective action when New Labour and employers attacked us at Grangemouth, or call for nationalisation which could have put huge pressure on both the SNP and Westminster governments? Why was our response to the Trade Union Act so pitiful? (ian4unite website, December 2016)
Those ‘opportunities’ will become more, not less, as the crisis of profitability bites harder for the capitalists both here in the UK and internationally. We need a fighting leadership in the UK’s biggest trade union which will not let workers down. And we suggest that Allinson adopts a radical, Marxist, programme for the union leadership which might include some or all of the following measures:
- Deliver radical trade union education which is based not on Keynesian class compromise but Marxist class struggle
- Double Strike Pay
- Campaign for the deselection of all right-wing Labour MPs
- Provide training and material support for militant anti-fascist action and break from the UAF popular front
- Recognise capitalism is in a crisis of profitability and support occupations and expropriations where strikes fail to deliver
- Campaign for ‘no cuts’ budgets for Labour councils (whether ‘legal’ or not)
For more information on Ian Allinson’s campaign go to http://www.ian4unite.org/. The leaflet available there includes the following information on how to support him:
Candidates must secure at least 50 nominations. Branches (including community and retired member branches) can nominate, as can workplaces where the branch covers more than one workplace. Nomination meetings must take place 16 Jan – 17 Feb. Voting takes place 27 March – 19 April. Read the rules for the election and campaigning, which are available via www.ian4unite.org
How to support ian4unite
Ian doesn’t have the resources of the establishment candidates who are well-paid from members’ subs and have powerful backers. If you want things to change, please get involved. Get in touch via the “leave your details” form on www.ian4unite.org, email email@example.com or phone to offer whatever help you can. For example:
- Will you publicly endorse Ian?
- Request leaflets and other campaign materials – the campaign can suggest local workplaces you could contact.
- Like, follow, share and retweet on social media.
- Campaigning costs money. Can you donate or collect money?
- Branches can only donate after nominating. Donations will be receipted. Any member can inspect the campaign finances.
- Send details of people the campaign should contact.
- Contact local media to promote the campaign. Send in your ideas for how Unite could improve.
- Let us know when your nomination meeting will be. Invite Ian or someone from the campaign to speak at your branch or workplace meeting, or to visit your workplace.
- If you want to nominate from your workplace, request nomination forms from your Regional Secretary from 2 January.
- Secure a nomination from your branch and/or workplace.