Coyne rebooted as political kingmaker

There is only one candidate in the Unite General Secretary election talking about the Labour Party – and, yes, it is the candidate who says the union shouldn’t talk about the Labour Party.

With a screeching handbrake turn, Gerard Coyne is now all over the media demanding that Len McCluskey should talk MORE about party politics.

Len seems to have been pretty busy with the day job lately, what with trying to save the jobs of Unite members threatened by the planned Peugeot takeover of Vauxhall Motors.

Not the best use of his time, according to Coyne.  The General Secretary should drop all of that and pitch into the media feeding frenzy over Labour’s loss of the Copeland by-election.

Coyne has certainly been leading the way there.  Lots of people, he says, should be “looking in the mirror.”  He doesn’t quite say Jeremy Corbyn should quit, but he does most definitely say that Len McCluskey should be talking about the issue.

So the drop-the-politics-put-the-members-first champion is now coming clean as the I’m-the-GS-who-will-put-politics-first candidate.

In truth, it was always going to be like this.  From the get-go, the Coyne campaign has been a political project, driven by the West Midlands machine politicians at the heart of right-wing Labour (yes, Watson, Spellar and Dromey, I’m talking about you).

For them, it matters nothing whether Unite is run well or badly, whether it protects members’ workplace interests or not.  They believe that installing their own hand-crafted marionette at the helm will assist them in steering Labour back into safe Blairite waters again.

For this work, they are using Gerard Coyne, a man no more encumbered by scruples than he is blessed with judgement.  This was a rickety choice, for this reason.  If your rhetoric is about making the election about industrial matters rather than politics, you are playing a game where Coyne barely performs in the same league as McCluskey.

So with Coyne reading the “non-political” script written for him by…politicians, all McCluskey has had to do is keep the focus strictly on bread-and-butter jobs issues.  Since a brief pre-Xmas wobble in the Mirror, this has worked, and left the Coyne campaign gasping for air. I fully expect the final branch nomination totals, due to be released soon, to reflect how badly Coyne has played his hand.

So this phase two of the Coyne campaign – the “let’s not let anything distract us from talking about politics” phase – was always going to happen.  From the outset, Coyne’s only hope has always been to present himself as the anti-Corbyn candidate and hope to scoop the votes of those Unite members who both share his view of Labour’s Leader and believe that this is what the union election should be about.

This is not an absurd strategy.  There is no denying that Corbyn is struggling, nor that McCluskey is in some measure identified with him.

But it will likely fail for three reasons.  The first is that on those industrial issues where Unite members interests clash with some of Corbyn’s positions (Trident, nuclear power etc) McCluskey has been unequivocal in coming down on the side of the members – and the members concerned know it and seem to appreciate it.  For example, Coyne’s slightly desperate attempt to pin the Copeland loss on McCluskey is rather undermined by the backing that the latter has received from the members at the Sellafield nuclear power plant in the heart of the constituency.

This leads on to reason two:  Workers can tell the difference between a union election and a parliamentary one; and they want one thing from a General Secretary and another from an MP.  No union election yet has been determined by Labour Party or other political considerations.  It is about who has the best agenda for leading the union.  Here, McCluskey stands on his record, and Coyne stands in a vacuum.  There are many Unite members who are not in the slightest interested in the Labour Party or who leads it, but are concerned that they have proper protection at work.

Finally, where does Coyne take this new line?  Either he says “Corbyn must go”, in which case he plays political king-maker, or he doesn’t answer the issue directly (he took the second route in a car-crash radio interview) in which case he is just media wall-paper with nothing to say.  His actual line, of course, is “McCluskey must go”, but packaging that up as “McCluskey must go in order that maybe Corbyn should go, or not, later” is exhausting to write but not interesting to say.

All the while, McCluskey seems to simply swallow up the territory.  His team has clearly calculated that leaving Coyne to launch one media attack after another more-or-less uncontested means little set against their candidate’s popularity with Unite reps and overpowering support from lay and full-time officialdom at all levels.  There is a risk here, to be sure, but it would take both an extraordinary event and a less ordinary rival than Coyne to turn risk into real danger.  Far more than media blether, the branch nominations will give us a clear picture of the battlefield.

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