The campaign is nearly over. Votes will start being cast in Unite’s General Secretary election and the overlooked but highly-significant parallel poll for the union’s Executive next week.
So it could be a moment for summing up campaign tactics, for weighing Len McCluskey’s ground-war grassroots-focussed game plan against Gerard Coyne’s tabloid-plus-Tom strategy, for comparing the merits of a strict industrial focus (Len) against making it mostly about Labour (Gerard), and so on. Interesting stuff.
But somehow it doesn’t feel right to treat this like a communications masterclass just now. That leaves out a few things vital to a trade union (and indeed to our broader public culture) – decency; honour; how we treat our union and how we behave to each other.
Let me explain: Unite Observer’s spies were at Grangemouth last weekend, where Unite’s Scottish leadership and much of the local membership gathered to celebrate the publication of the account of the bitter 2013 INEOS dispute by the plant’s former convenor (and Unite vice-chair) Mark Lyon. By all accounts it was a heart-warming show of solidarity and support by, above all, a working-class community that has been through hard times. It was about a union that fights, because that is what it has to do, that sometimes loses, because that does happen in the real world, but that will always be there for its members; that can be down but never out. It was also about celebrating a union that has helped educate tens of thousands of its members, that broadens horizons that the elite is anxious to keep narrow – and one of those members has written a book!
At the event one of the newly-arrived (in Unite) UCATT colleagues presented a Victorian-style membership certificate for the old painters’ union (one of UCATT’s own forebears) to Len McCluskey, made out in the name of his late father, who had been a member of said union on Liverpool docks. I am informed that Len got a bit teary.
Two days later Gerard Coyne set out his stall – in The Sun. He chose to make his penultimate pitch (as of this post) to Unite members in a Murdoch newspaper that is a byword for everything that is reactionary, sexist, racist and anti-union in Britain over the last thirty years. A newspaper that is reviled for defaming the city of Liverpool in its hour of grief and trauma. That has fought to oppose trade unionism in every single strike or dispute. That treats women as sexual commodities. And that destroyed the jobs and lives of thousands of its employees in the Wapping Dispute – men and women who were themselves in Unite’s predecessor unions, and which remains a no-go area for independent trade unionism to this day.
It speaks volumes, but if further amplification was required it came later that same day, with the Coyne-produced mock tabloid Unite Herald sent out to Unite branches around the country. If you haven’t seen a copy let me tell you what is NOT in it: There is nothing about Coyne’s plans for dealing with Brexit. Nor about training and apprenticeships. Casualised labour market – not a word. Merger strategy? Strike fund? Winning disputes? All these issues the four-page paper passed over in silence.
So what was in the Herald? Article after article of vitriol and smears, directed at Len McCluskey, Tony Woodley and indeed Unite as a whole. It was designed to demean where it did not actually defame, to traduce the reputation of the union, and to rend apart the basic bonds of solidarity that should bind trade unionists together even, or perhaps especially, when they disagree.
So let every Coyne supporter explain – must it come to this? Unite Observer has been clear from the start. Unions have elections. Gerard Coyne has every right to stand in this one. And having a right to stand means having a right to win, of course. But there is no right to campaign like this. Unite Herald is not anti-McCluskey. It is anti-union. It panders to every base prejudice trade unionism’s enemies have about our movement.
Of course, Gerard Coyne is ever-more transparently a puppet for the Watson machine. Watson’s Momentum-related attack on Unite has at least made that publicly clear beyond doubt. Watson’s odious associates Neil Buckley and Andy McSmith were presumably behind the Herald travesty and the Sun outrage. He is obviously ever-more lavishly-funded by people who wish Unite ill and have another agenda altogether. Coyne is little more than a boat bobbing on a sea of sewage, being towed towards harbour by people far more menacing than he.
But he must carry the can. Within the man with the pizzazz and presence of a suburban estate agent and the industrial experience of a 13-year old doing their first newspaper round lurks, apparently, the soul of a louse. Unite Observer hopes and believes that, in the spirit of Grangemouth, he will be crushed.