After McCluskey … ?

Unite the Union, writes Veronica Fagan, is conducting an election for a new General Secretary under circumstances that could scarcely be less auspicious.


Even before the pandemic, the situation facing trade unions was dire. They were already contending with the impact of deindustrialisation across vast swathes of Britain. Zero-hours contracts were becoming ubiquitous in some industries, and large parts of formerly public sector jobs were being privatised and contracted out. Casualisation was rapidly expanding in sectors such as further and higher education, where work was previously secure and relatively well paid.

The pandemic, and employers’ responses to it, have made things worse for the majority. A new term, fire and rehire, has entered the trade union movement’s political vocabulary. This objectionable tactic – tearing up existing contracts and re-employing people on worse terms – has been used by bosses across multiple sectors to take advantage of the crisis. Notably, some affected workers, such as the GMB’s British Gas engineers, were previously on relatively good terms and conditions but didn’t have a history of trade union militancy, and consequently were unsuccessful in their dispute. For Unite members there was successful action against attempts to impose wage cuts of £8000 pa on staff at Heathrow airport and the long dispute against Go North West in Manchester where 400 bus drivers beat back an attack on their terms and conditions.

And if fire and rehire is the main offensive, it’s not the only one workers are currently facing – for example, the attempt by fire authorities to tear up national agreements, with fire fighters represented by the considerably more militant FBU.

Of course there has been some resistance to the callous demands that employers have made of workers during the pandemic. The most visible example at a national level was the campaign for safer schools by the National Education Union (NEU). The campaign led to a significant increase in union membership, and some of the biggest trade union meetings within a single industry for decades. As important as the high attendance was the recruitment of many new shop stewards and health and safety representatives, particularly in the primary sector where the union had traditionally been less organised. The NEU boxed clever to some extent, using health and safety legislation to win concessions from the employer and strengthen their organisation. Meanwhile, PCS members at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea adopted a different approach and have taken strike action over the lack of safety in their workplace.

The situation has been greatly compounded by the UK’s anti-trade union laws, which Tony Blair proudly badged in 1997 as the most restrictive in the developed world. They outlaw effective action within industries in terms of the right to picket, and, even more importantly, make solidarity across unions and workplaces illegal. The subsequent changes in the world of work since these initial restrictions were introduced – and the failure of New Labour to repeal them – has made them increasingly destructive to the trade union movement.

Collective action, including by workers not directly involved in a particular industrial dispute, is the only way that slogans such as ‘people before profit’ can be realised in practice. If the rallying cry of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ is to be anything more than a catchphrase on a banner, we need trade union leaders at every level who are prepared to break these laws.

The pandemic has obviously exacerbated other issues of major concern to current and potential trade unionists. There are the industries such as hospitality which are dominated by zero-hours contracts, where even the measly furlough payments were not available to most workers. There is the massive growth in foodbank use, and the impact of enforced home working and schooling on those for whom ‘home’ is cramped and damp, or a place of abuse and coercive control.

All this at a time when, while the most recent figures show a small overall increase in trade union membership, including continued growth in women members, levels in the private sector – and particularly in manufacturing – continue to suffer worrying declines. Union membership in the private sector fell by more than 100,000, bringing it to the lowest level recorded since 1995. Meanwhile, it is estimated that unions have lost 80,000 members in manufacturing. Fewer than one in ten workers aged 16 to 24 are union members, and amongst union members themselves, fewer than one in 20 fall into that age bracket. Almost 40% of current union members are aged 50 or older.

Back to Unite

This is the context in which the Unite General Secretary election is currently taking place. Recent weeks has seen hundreds of Unite branches and large workplaces meet and debate whether they should nominate a successor to the incumbent Len McCluskey.

McCluskey is probably the best-known union General Secretary. He has held the post since 2010, having been re-elected in 2013 and 2017. He is a former Liverpool docker, but in 1979 he became regional officer of the TGWU (one of the unions that came together to form Unite in 2007), and a national officer in 2004. But although he is known for his history as a trade unionist per se, his main claim to fame in recent years is as the highest-profile trade union supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

You may have thought you knew the outcome of the branch nomination process even before the process was formally completed at noon on 9 June. The previous few days were full of conflicting media and campaign reports about the nominations tally. However, the reality is that, in any such election, there is inevitably a gap between decisions made at meetings and the paperwork getting completed correctly and submitted on time.

The Unite website announced the results on 10 June as follows:

  • Howard Beckett 328
  • Gerard Coyne 196
  • Sharon Graham 349
  • Steve Turner 525

Although Unite added that “The final total may vary slightly from these figures as outstanding issues regarding the validity of some nominations are resolved,” it seems extremely unlikely that the ranking order of the candidates will change.

According to the executive guidelines, there were 3,474 units eligible to nominate – but fewer than 1,400 made a valid nomination. This means that well under half of Unite’s branches and large workplaces engaged with the nomination process, and some of those that did nominate seem to have met for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic to do so. In general, reports suggest that branch nomination meetings were relatively small – certainly smaller than during the last General Secretary election.

The union has done very little to assist branches to move online, or indeed, to support individual members to get involved when they are not in workplace-based branches. Lack of membership engagement and the existence of zombie branches under a left-wing leadership feeds ammunition to the right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne.

The Coyne threat

There is debate between left activists in Unite – including amongst A*CR supporters – about which of the candidates to succeed McCluskey would take the union forward most effectively. There is no doubt, however, about which of the candidates would be most disastrous: the defeated 2017 contender Gerard Coyne. Coyne’s platform in this election is clear: he says he is “sick and tired of Unite messing about with Westminster politics and trying to be a backseat driver for the Labour Party,” as well as making the obvious noises about workers and reps needing more support.

Lots of activists on the left in Unite argued that Coyne wouldn’t get on the ballot paper. This seemed dangerously complacent to those of us who remembered the results last time. But we were told it was all right because the rules had been changed which would disfavour candidates like Coyne who might struggle to win branch nominations. It’s true that the threshold for nominations had substantially increased, although it was also combined with a facility for workplaces of over 50 to form an additional nominating unit. A move to introduce a more democratic preferential voting system was blocked by United Left.

But bureaucrats, right and left, have a disastrous habit of underestimating the power of politics.

Coyne stood against McCluskey last time and was narrowly defeated in a three-way race with former Fujitsu activist Ian Allinson. The turnout was a mere 12.2 per cent. (When McCluskey was first elected in 2010, turnout was 16 per cent; in his first re-election, it was 15.2 per cent). The most high-profile intervention into this contest from outside Unite came in the form of three right-wing Labour MPs – Tom Watson, Margaret Hodge and Siobhan McDonagh – launching an extraordinary broadside against left-wing candidate Howard Beckett. While there was no mention of Coyne’s name, no one could have remained in any doubt that they were batting for him in a desperate ploy to break the left-wing political dynamic of Unite.

Coyne has positioned himself as the ‘change’ candidate. Politically, that’s a terrifying prospect, not only for members of Unite, but for all trade unionists and socialists. Under his leadership, not only would Unite move to the right, but the balance of forces in both the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party would be further consolidated in this direction. But then why is he getting support? Those on the Labour right – and indeed in the Tory Party who agree with his political vision – have resources that they can deploy for Coyne’s campaign. But he’s also winning attention from disillusioned workers who have experienced the union under McCluskey’s leadership as hollowed out. Coyne is pushing the right-wing populist idea that if the union spent less time and money on the Labour Party (or on a brand new, over-budget HQ in Birmingham), then defending jobs and conditions against the bosses’ offensive would be an easy win. To members who have observed Unite’s unresponsiveness to the challenges they face at work and more widely, this notion has considerable appeal.

Divided left

We should be clear that three left candidates – Steve Turner, Sharon Graham and Howard Beckett – have achieved enough nominations to do battle against Coyne. This has to be a battle to build a more combative, democratic and effective union on both industrial and political fronts. It’s useless to spend our time arguing that any of the three are not on the left. Each of them would be absolutely streets better than Coyne for Unite and for politics more generally.

This is, of course, not to say they don’t have weaknesses. Indeed, they all have one weakness in common: each of them is part of the Unite bureaucracy. Were they to be elected, none of them would be bringing to the role any recent experience of organising in their own industry or workplace.

That said, the three candidates do have different politics, as well as different experiences.

Until eighteen months ago, Steve Turner was the best known of the three, as Assistant General Secretary of the union. He is responsible for Manufacturing, but also apparently for retired members and community (news to me as the Chair of a community branch for five years!). He represents Unite on the TUC and is the chair of the People’s Assembly. Unsurprisingly, he has secured significant nominations in large manufacturing branches – but not, as far as we are aware, very many in the community sector. One of the stronger points of his campaign is that he and his supporters have talked a fair amount about the importance of a Green New Deal. The most accurate description of him would be as a consummate bureaucrat – but nevertheless, he would be vastly preferable to Coyne, because he would both defend key aspects of McCluskey’s legacy, and make it more possible for left activists to continue to function at all levels in the union.

Sharon Graham is probably the least well known outside the union. However, Unite activists will be familiar with her work in the Organising and Leverage Department, and her “Work, Voice, Pay” campaign provides vital support to workplace organizers. Graham has the support of the branch that organises the Manchester bus drivers who just won a brilliant campaign against fire and rehire at Go North West. Her ‘back to the workplace’ slogan emphasises her strengths in industrial campaigning. One of Graham’s central proposals is the creation of combines for all industrial sectors, with the top ten companies in each coming together to identify priorities and decide on strategy. In terms of union power in the workplace, this could see a real shift in the terms of engagement.But while she has powerful things to say about workplace organising, a union leadership also needs to be speaking for and engaging with the issues that affect the membership in every part of their lives. That means campaigning against racism, for our NHS, for decent housing, and so much more – and not counterposing those struggles against workplace militancy. Some are concerned that she has little to say on such questions.

Howard Beckett’s profile has massively increased since he was appointed by Unite as one of its delegates to Labour’s NEC in January 2020. He has played a role in breaking an old and bad tradition of no collaboration between left trade unions on that body and those representing the constituency left. He already had a strong social media presence anyway which has been enhanced by his work on the NEC. Beckett doesn’t confine fighting for Unite’s political profile to votes on Labour Party committees; his campaign video starts with a speech to a Kill the Bill demo. His industrial focus has been criticised for being light, but he had a great record in the successful Birmingham Bin dispute in 2019, and he has played a key role in the campaign against fire and rehire.

The three candidates also decided to put themselves forward through different routes. Sharon Graham stood without reference to the ‘official left’ within Unite, although she has support across the union from members of the Executive, many branch activists and office holders, and from parts of the radical left that have members in Unite.

Steve Turner and Howard Beckett both asked for the endorsement of ‘United Left’ at a hustings meeting in July 2020, long before McCluskey officially announced his retirement or the NEC agreed a timetable.

So what is United Left? If you read its ‘who we are’ page, it looks OK and says more or less what you would expect. You might be more worried about its excessively elaborate constitution and the fact that it says officers and staff of the union have the same role as everyone else. But to pick out its defining features, it helps to be familiar with the chequered history of left currents in the British trade unions. One clue is that it describes itself as a ‘broad left’. We explain in more detail here the general difference between broad lefts, which focus on being election machines, and other types of left formations in unions.

Another characteristic of many union broad lefts is that they are tightly controlled and relatively secretive. That’s especially the case in a union like Unite where everything is organised according to which ‘sector’ you are in; in decision-making structures, you don’t get the opportunity to meet activists in different kinds of work. Even a more right-wing union like UNISON has more inter-sectional mixing at a regional level. There are also credible stories of activists being refused entry to United Left.

United Left, as it says, were ‘successful in winning the membership’s support for our candidate Len McCluskey in 3 successive General Secretary election campaigns,’ and in winning many positions on the Executive Council. To put it another way, they are McCluskey’s machine, rather than a campaigning organisation that involves workplace activists and shop stewards in a debate about how the union can best meet the challenges we face.

In any case, United Left is where both Beckett and Turner sought support. The official story, according to United Left, is that Turner won fair and square and Beckett broke his previous promise to abide by the result. Beckett’s supporters tell a different story: that the vote was lost by only three votes, and that they have evidence of at least a dozen Beckett supporters who were bona fide members of United Left – some of them long-standing – who didn’t receive a vote. A call an investigation into what happened was turned down.

So what strategy should Unite activists pursue in order to win for the left and keep Coyne out of the General Secretary’s seat? We need only look at what happened in UNISON’s General Secretary election in January to understand why a single-candidate approach is essential. UNISON’s left failed to agree on a single candidate; by standing three candidates, they allowed continuity candidate Christine McAnea to walk through the middle into the top spot. While UNISON formally supported Corbyn in general terms during his second leadership challenge, it backs the right in Labour’s structure. McAnea’s leadership will try to ensure that continues. Despite recent left victories in UNISON’s NEC elections, it’s not clear that the left can take control of the Labour Link committee – and even if they do, it may take time to replace their representatives on Labour’s NEC.

No tightly run group like United Left should be determining the future of the union. We need to bring together the strengths of all the candidates on the left – and more importantly, of their supporters – to map out a campaign in which we throw our weight behind a single candidate. At the time of writing, negotiations between the three left candidates and McCluskey are ongoing. We must hope that two of the three agree to step down if the union is to have the best possible chance of avoiding a Coyne leadership. But if the left remains divided, and particularly if overblown egos prevent candidates from making the difficult choice to withdraw, the future of Unite looks increasingly bleak.

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