The British left is in a difficult place, but it would be worse still without a left leadership in the country’s largest union. Unite activist Ben Hayes urges union members to support the United Left candidate Steve Turner.
The election to succeed Len McCluskey as General Secretary of Unite the Union obviously comes at a hugely significant moment for the labour movement. It’s increasingly clear that the government plan to make working people pay the price of the pandemic, and that there is an urgent need for a just transition to a sustainable economy. Unfortunately a series of bruising political defeats have caused immense damage to the left’s prospects in Britain. This will be the forth GS election since the union was formed by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and this election has the highest stakes of any.
It’s important to remember that McCluskey’s election in 2010 came at a time when many in leading labour movement positions broadly went along with a “too far, too fast” response to the recently-formed Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition government’s austerity programme. In a difficult moment, we should imagine how much worse the last decade would have been without the leadership of one of the largest unions in Britain and Ireland being prepared to speak up in support of movements like the student protests against the trebling of tuition fees and abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, wholeheartedly back initiatives such as The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, take a stand on issues such as opposing the war on Libya, and refuse to repudiate industrial action.
The United Left grouping in the union, which has managed to keep the position of General Secretary and a majority of Executive Council seats aligned to the left throughout the union’s existence, are supporting Steve Turner in this election. So too are the Progressive United Left grouping in Scotland, after a welcome and important agreement by former candidate Howard Beckett to prioritise the maximum unity of the left. As with any other organisation, it is entirely legitimate for activists to discuss necessary areas of improvement for the UL’s work and possible ways to maximise its potential. It should also be recognised that the grouping remains the broadest and largest current of left activists in the union, and its decision to endorse Turner should be of significance to all socialists when considering their options in this election (especially considering that the other candidate to seek UL endorsement has now also joined his campaign). Selection processes for choosing an agreed candidate are always likely to raise some points of contention, but what other organisation is better placed to have overseen one?
In contrast, it is clear to see who forces bitterly opposed to these progressive positions adopted by Unite are overwhelmingly backing. After coming within less than 5% of victory in 2017’s election against McCluskey and Ian Allinson of the ‘Unite Rank and File’ grouping, the Gerard Coyne camp sense a chance to go one better this time, especially with Executive Officer Sharon Graham making it three on the ballot again. The British left has experienced a highly demoralising couple of years, and the combination of an experienced right-wing labour movement machine, with enthusiastic support from many mainstream media outlets (The Sun have once again offered him a column to trash Unite), represents a significant intervention from those determined to ensure our unions assert themselves as little as possible.
Coyne’s ties to the likes of former Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson and John Spellar (MP and founding member of the right-wing Labour First organisation), are well documented. But a victory for him would have implications far beyond Unite’s relationship to the Labour Party. It is striking, for instance, that his manifesto makes no mention of the future of the Community Membership initiative, something which Turner played a significant role in the formation of. This has represented a crucial step towards bringing those who are, for whatever reason, not in paid employment into the union: running campaigns on issues such as Universal Credit payments and building solidarity with those involved in industrial disputes. Particularly in the current climate, strengthening our community branches to be a relevant and powerful force in all regions where Unite organises should be considered a key task for anyone serious about the future of the union.
Naturally, it’s rare for any individual activist to wholeheartedly agree with a General Secretary all of the time: especially in a large general union like Unite, where workers from a wide range of sectors, supportive of various political traditions and none, will seek to have their voice heard. But this is a key factor to consider: a Turner victory will be crucial to securing the future of the union’s democratic structures. Something that has been lost at times in the debate surrounding this election, particularly in relation to discussions over issues such affiliation to the Labour Party (even putting to one side that none of the candidates standing have signalled support for breaking the link), is that the General Secretary is not an all-powerful ruler of Unite, and nor should they be (despite descriptions of McCluskey as ‘Unite boss’ from right-wing commentators and some on the left who should frankly know better). Indeed, as any regular at policy conference will be aware, it is far from unprecedented for strong interventions by members to shift the union’s position (see fracking for a recent example). Those at the heart of Coyne’s campaign have strong experience as ‘fixers’ in Unite’s predecessor unions, and it took decades of hard and painful work from left activists to loosen their grip. A victory for him is almost certain to see a ‘restructuring’ of the union which would make events in the Labour Party look like child’s play. The threat of Coyne is far deeper than him merely being a milquetoast, uninspiring figurehead: the consequences for the left would likely be immediate and brutal.
When Unite’s role in ‘Westminster politics’ over recent years is discussed, all socialists should be clear what this is code for: the fact that the union was supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and has opposed the rightward shift of the Starmer era. It is perfectly valid, and indeed hugely important, that a lively and honest debate on the future of workplace organisation takes place in the union, with all the barriers and opportunities we face raised. It is a huge mistake, however, for anyone on the left to boost arguments which present a false dichotomy between the union either seeking to make an impact politically or industrially. Admittedly ‘people I’ve spoken to’ is a limited sample, but I have yet to come across a single workplace activist who found that their efforts at organisation were frustrated by Unite’s support for Jeremy Corbyn or others sympathetic to his politics. Quite why anyone on the left would advocate that we should attempt to exercise less influence in a party we are affiliated to (with no serious moves to change this fact in sight) is beyond me. And irrespective of differing views on affiliation to the Labour Party, the union’s political voice has far wider repercussions. Stepping back from our current commitments would leave countless campaigning organisations working to oppose austerity, build international solidarity, defend the right to protest, take on racism and fascism, support movements for equality, defend workplace safety, protect our environment, and oppose British involvement in wars of aggression, in a far weaker place. As important as the future of Unite is in and of itself, this election has huge repercussions for anyone invested in bringing about serious change.
The present state of affairs demands we have a union committed to fighting for working people on every front we can, however we can. A victory for Steve Turner would not only be a much-needed show of strength amidst a tide of setbacks for the left: but a positive endorsement for a union that is unafraid to embrace talking about the potential of a ‘Workers’ Greenprint’ and leading the campaign for vital investment in renewable energy, stand with workers and communities opposing an upcoming offensive against the living standards of millions, combat powerful projects seeking to sow false social divisions, and promote a politics which advances the interests of working people at home and abroad. If you haven’t already, please do vote for Steve, and encourage any members you know to do the same: information is available on the union’s website for anyone needing their ballot to be reissued.