New leader at Unite, time for a new strategy?

Chris Jones assesses what is needed now Unite has a new General Secretary.


Many Unite activists emitted a sigh of relief as the latest General Secretary election came to an end. Rattled by a split in the previously dominant United Left group and the emergence of a third `left` or `continuity` candidate, many feared Unite would fall into the hands of the Starmerite right. The best efforts of many activists to reduce the left candidates to a more encouraging single figure were only partly successful.

The worst case scenario has been avoided, but how and whether the result will mean an improvement of the dire situation in the union is being hotly contested. What it means for the United Left will also be of great interest and debate probably for quite some time. In many ways the end of the election, bare knuckle ride as it was, is just the start of a probably protracted period of reflection, debate and reorganising. This should offer opportunities for activists looking for a more fighting and militant union.

Recent years have not been easy for the trade union movement, and Unite is no exception. Falling membership and a cataclysmic loss of workplace and branch activists are the most visible signs of a failing strategy. Unite has become an increasingly bureaucratised service provider. A lot of effort was put into the prospects of a radical labour government, in part at least as a substitute for lost militancy. The ousting of Corbyn and the reorientation of the Labour Party back to the `middle` ground has put an end to that possibility – though it has generated a lot of statements about fighting on in the party, and hints in some quarters of other possibilities.

Unite needs to reframe itself as a mobiliser of active members. To put pressure on the incoming general secretary, a new left is needed which does not focus on the internal functioning and control of a structure that seems designed to avoid rapid positive outcomes. The union apparatus needs to refocus on workplace fightbacks, grassroots initiatives and community based campaigning.

Our political strategy has to be an adjunct of this workplace and community focus. We need to link up with other unions to confront councils, government and employers. The governments legislative programme needs to be wholeheartedly resisted. We need to demand of the Labour Party that it mounts opposition in Parliament and supports resistance on the streets. But 120 years of history has shown us that should not be waited for, it will be a dead weight. Unite is an integral part of the Labour Party, we need to make it clear what we expect of it and not hang around expectantly.

In the short term we need to facilitate a discussion across all activists to pin down exactly what we want from our new GS. New local networks need to work around this, wherever comrades where politically before the election. And start to organise around that process, in a horizontal democratic way not top down.

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