Coyne: the candidate for union haters

It may not be surprising but it is still somehow shocking – a keen supporter of the neo-fascist English Defence League leafletting for Gerard Coyne outside Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant this week.

It isn’t a surprise because this is the direction the Coyne campaign has been drifting in all along.  But it is nevertheless a wake-up call to every single trade unionist when the far right feels emboldened to overtly intervene in a union election.

As ever, there are vaguely comical aspects.  Like the skeletons that turned up to picket Unite’s EC meeting six hours before it began, our EDL friend chose to leaflet when the plant was on a shut-down week.  With timing like that, it is as well Gerard Coyne isn’t a stand-up comedian.

But this really isn’t funny.  The EDL intervention highlights a truth about the whole Coyne campaign:  He is the candidate for those elements in our society which hate trade unions.  His is an anti-union campaign.

Take the endorsements he has rounded up:  Trevor Kavanagh, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man in British politics, writing in the Sun. Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail.  These are not right-wing trade unionists.  They are anti-union point blank.  They want unions to be as weak as possible, they want every strike to fail.

They champion the unrestrained free market, scoff at social equality for women and black people and are indifferent to poverty.

And, of course, they very much do not want any sort of Labour government in any shape or form.

And they support Gerard Coyne who, it should be remembered, supports the Sun in return.  Those who abominate trade unions and want Labour out of power for ever want Gerard Coyne to lead Unite.

Every Unite member should ask why does Coyne attract such support? What sort of union is the Sun and the Mail expecting to get under his leadership?

Kavanagh gave a clue.  He invoked the spirit of former AUEW president Terry Duffy, an unpleasant anti-semite who played a key part in the first great trade union defeat of the Thatcher years, the sacking of Longbridge convenor Derek Robinson by British Leyland in 1980.

And he praised  the former AEEU general secretary Sir Ken Jackson, the Blair-era high priest of business unionism and competitive trade unionism, whose defeat was the pre-requisite for the foundation of Unite in the first place. Funnily enough, no media sleuth has ever looked into Jackson’s privileged lifestyle and housing arrangements when a union leader – let’s just say that they put any allegations about Len McCluskey in the very deepest shade.

But even Sir Ken never played footsie with the EDL or its equivalents, to the best of Unite Observer’s information.

So it seems pretty clear that a Coyne-led Unite would be in hoc to not just the establishment, but its most reactionary and regressive wing right from the outset.

But Gerard’s not like that, his supporters may claim.  Oh yeah?  What sort of man organises a silly stunt to disrupt the union’s motor industry conference in Birmingham to highlight his claim that Unite “treats women as second-class citizens” in the same week as he writes in the Sun, a paper where for women to be treated as second-class would represent a promotion, and “half-naked citizen” would be a more accurate designation.

I suppose the answer is the same sort of man who runs a campaign against union involvement in politics and then launches a final poster featuring a big picture of…Jeremy Corbyn.

A hypocrite in a word.

But let’s not say he is a man without a future.  As long as Relate needs counsellors, the candidate who has brought Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch together in his support, leaving their disputes over phone-hacking behind, there will be a job for Gerard.

It just won’t be the one he’s wanting. Because as voting begins you have a coalition of the EDL/Tom Watson/The Sun on the one hand, and 1,200 Unite branches, representing 550,000 members with 62 out of 65 Executive Council members on the other.  I tell you, this ain’t close.


A right to stand, a right to win. But no right to campaign like this.

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.

Alas Poor Gerard….

So your critics say your campaign is dead?  Well, who wouldn’t fight back by mobilising…skeletons.

The latest initiative from Camp Coyne, apparently mistaking a trade union for an adventure playground or fancy dress party, was to organise a march of the Undead on Unite’s Holborn headquarters to highlight – well, who knows what.

Thus the union’s executive members were supposed to be greeted on arrival for their quarterly meeting by a picket from the Other Side – half a dozen skeletons accompanied by as many mainly masked Coynistas.

Whether the masks were part of the theatre or to hide blushes we may never know, but even the skulls looked a bit uneasy.

I say “supposed” because the skeleton’s timing was all off and they quit the Coyne Coffin too soon, arriving several hours before the executive meeting was due to start.  The masked zombies, only slightly livelier than their bony charges, were for the most part not Unite members but New Labour flunkeys, once their disguises had been penetrated, according to Team McCluskey.

This baroque photo op was swiftly crashed by McCluskey supporters, and there ensued what lawyers like to call a Skeleton Argument.  I doubt if punches were thrown, as a nameless corpse alleged to The Guardian, but according to our sources, one skeleton did end up a leg light.

And with that, it was game over and all back to the cemetery.

The extraordinary thing is not that this entertainment was staged, but that somebody – presumably, everybody in fact – in the Coyne campaign thought it was a wizard wheeze.

Somehow, somewhere a whole discussion got from “we’re six-to-one down in nominations and we need to do something” all the way to “let’s hire some skeletons and shake-rattle-and-roll outside Unite House” without anyone saying “WTF”, or even “we might look like prats, and this might make trade union people think that Gerard is not quite general secretary material.”

This madcap am-dram experiment capped a foaming weekend for Gerard Coyne.  First, his team alleged that Len McCluskey was starving Birmingham’s Labour Mayor hopeful of funds, a sally which only brought a rebuke for fibbing from acting GS Gail Cartmail and once more highlighted Coyne’s inconsistent approach to involvement in Labour politics.

It also drew attention to what may be a scandal Gerard wouldn’t want to talk about – well done those PR guys!

Then there was a press release slamming Unite’s donations of tens of thousands of pounds to Momentum – donations which exist, alas, solely in Gerard Coyne’s imagination.

Interestingly, neither release seems to have been promoted by the Coyne Circus through his official social media.  This tends to confirm Unite Observer’s theory that there are two Coyne campaigns running in parallel.  There is Sober Gerard, who puts out statements on zero-hours contracts and training and the like, and appears to be someone who wants to be a trade union leader.

And there is Batshit Crazy Coyne, lured by a career in vaudeville, waiting to cast off the sober mien of a career trade union official and get in touch with his inner Coco in full public glare.

This was feeling like a long campaign, with the hope of any serious alternative agenda to the McCluskey leadership being set out by his challenger long disappeared.  But now, it is teetering on the edge of being entertaining.

What next?  The skeletons were marshalled by a guy called Will Prescott.  He’s on 07706 297042 – let him have your ideas:  Gorilla outfits! Whoopee cushions! Blow-up Dolls!  Itching Powder! Gerard’s up for it!  Just don’t mention the JLR nomination.

Nothing left but smear-and-burn

The predicted nominations landslide for Len McCluskey has now rolled in with only one surprise – even more land slid than was projected.

Behind six-to-one in branch nominations, and well over five-to-one in the number of members in the nominating branches (this matters, because those branches can now spend their funds in promoting their chosen candidate to their members), Coyne’s lavishly-funded, Tom Watson-supervised campaign looks dead in the water.

Take out the West Midlands, and the figures are even more distressing for the PLP puppet challenger.  Ten to one down in the biggest region, London/Eastern.  Not the slightest sign of the hoped-for Welsh mini-surge.  More than ten-to-one adrift in the South West, sometimes a region ready to back a challenger in the past, but not this time.

Add in the West Midlands and you come to this curious fact. The McCluskey campaign assert that their man has as many members in the branches backing him as the Regional Secretary, Coyne himself.  If true – extraordinary.

As Unite Observer has said before – humiliation awaits.  Others may vainly try to talk up their man’s chances, but there is nothing to suggest that anyone could overcome this sort of support deficit.

The predictable outcome, since Coyne’s backers are unlikely to let their candidate withdraw at this stage, will be a ramping up of the allegations and poisonous rhetoric from their campaign.  Already Coyne has been conducting his campaign with scant regard for decency – this will only get worse.

Certainly, Plan A – make this all about Len talking about politics – has failed.  Disobligingly, the incumbent has focussed on industrial issues, leaving Coyne himself to step forward as the rent-a-quote political pundit.

Plan B – ferry Coyne around the country having his picture taken, usually alone, outside famous national monuments – has received just the coverage one would expect.

So now it will be slash-and-burn, or rather smear-and-burn.  Unite Observer does find it curious that Coyne who, for all his shortcomings, has been a capable and outwardly loyal union official for many years, should now be so willing to trash Unite publicly.

There can be few officials and activists not incensed by his portrayal of the union as sleazy, ineffective and failing.  Desperation makes madness, one supposes.

This does raise the question as to how, if the extraordinary happened, Coyne would actually be able to function as General Secretary, in the absence of any support in the union’s lay and official hierarchies.  Presumably Tom Watson would have to hold his hand.  Maybe John Spellar would reclaim the HQ office he abandoned in a hurry when Derek Simpson ousted his mate Ken Jackson in the AEEU all those years ago.

But that prospect shouldn’t keep you awake at night.  The activists have made their views clear, and they will deliver the vote. Put it like this – Gerard Coyne is certainly not going to break Spellar’s impressive and unbroken run of labour movement election defeats this century.

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.

Mudslinging not winning

Valentine’s day must have been a depressing affair in the Coyne household.

Gerard kicked off the day with a novel approach to staying out of Westminster politics – giving an interview to the Bristol Post’s parliamentary correspondent, in which he claimed Unite members at the city’s Rolls Royce factory had told him there was a need for a change of direction in the union, and that he would achieve that.

This was coupled with possibly the most defeatist message to ever pass the lips of a would-be union general secretary – that aerospace industry workers needed to “face up” to a hard Brexit and “hope for the best”.

This extraordinarily pessimistic approach to defending members’ jobs in these challenging times was followed by the usual mudslinging about Len McCluskey’s age and that tired old Westminster politics line again.

Such fighting talk clearly resonated with the Rolls Royce members, who wasted no time in nominating, er, McCluskey.

Breaking news that Vauxhall parent company General Motors was looking to sell its European business to Peugeot then gave Coyne’s three-strong press team the opportunity to prove yet again that quantity doesn’t deliver quality.

Or maybe it was a deliberate demonstration of Coyne’s determination to take the union out of politics that caused him to issue a press release calling on McCluskey to tell “business secretary Sajid Javid” that there could be no job losses at the UK car manufacturer.

Unite’s leader would not, presumably, have thought of that demand without Coyne’s help when he met with the actual business secretary, Greg Clarke, the next day.

Such stunning incompetence was followed by an extraordinary claim to Irishness by the challenger for GS, in order to justify warning the Irish government not to use Brexit as an excuse to attack living standards.

“My name is a bit of a giveaway,” he quipped, before going on to warn the Irish negotiating team not to get involved in an economic war with Britain.

It’s difficult to argue with that. But if Coyne was half as prepared to counsel the UK government against a hard Brexit, rather than just hoping for the best, as he is to telling Ireland what to do, his message might be more persuasive.

But then he didn’t say he would keep Unite out of Irish politics, only Westminster ones.

The clue to how this election contest is unfolding, with Len McCluskey’s twitter feed claiming over 800 nominations at their close on Friday, is definitely in Gerard’s name.

The original Gaelic of Coyne is O’Cadhain, from the word cadhan, meaning wild goose. Which Gerard and his PLP backers are undoubtedly now chasing.

A nomination spelt “humiliation”

The nominations race is hotting up.  There are three which seem to be of particular consequence, for different reasons.

First, the huge JLR car plant in Solihull nominated Len McCluskey.  This is the union’s biggest branch, with over 10,000 members – it is the country’s largest factory.  If any extra significance were needed, it is of course in the heart of Gerard Coyne’s West Midlands region, where he has been top official for more than fifteen years.  JLR must constitute nearly ten per cent of the region’s total membership.  How Coyne let such a prize slip is a reflection not only of his campaign, I would think, but of his stewardship of the region down the years.  This nomination is spelt humiliation.

Second, the branch in Barrow for workers building nuclear subs also went McCluskey.  This strikes to the core of Campaign Coyne in a different way.  It shows that members are voting on industrial delivery, not party politics.  It is a fair bet that Barrow workers are not paid-up Corbynistas, so their support for McCluskey suggests that his strong backing for them in terms of preserving their jobs has seen off Coyne’s anti-politics rhetoric.

Third, a win for the challenger – Unite’s parliamentary branch, mainly composed of MP’s secretaries.  This went for Coyne, 35 to 25 according to social media.  Hardly surprising, since many of those members work for the Labour MPs who are the driving force behind Campaign Coyne.  Still, it is a branch and all candidates would rather win it than not.  What is even more surprising is that the Coyne camp trumpeted it as a significant win for their man, apparently oblivious to the fact that strong backing for their avowedly apolitical candidate from the union’s only political professionals branch tended to cut against their main message of “take Unite out of politics”.  It maybe that Gerard Coyne would do better with fewer press handlers – one who can stick to script is more use than three or four (latest count) working to a different plan.

In other news, the construction rank-and-file group (the only non-official industrial grouping in Unite of any significance) voted to support McCluskey.  They don’t have a nomination in their own right, of course, but they will influence views in Unite’s construction sector, which has doubled in size under McCluskey thanks to the UCATT merger.  Coyne was never in the hunt for this support, but it is a real blow to Ian Allinson’s faltering campaign.  He trailed up to Glasgow to pitch his case, but came away empty-handed.  I don’t know whether his opposition to all major new construction projects was a factor, but it should have been.

On the big picture, claims from the various campaigns would indicate that nominations across the union could be as much as 4-1 for McCluskey.  Other, less well-informed bloggers who let their partisanship dull their analytical faculties, will tell a different story, but Unite Observer believes that barring something extraordinary, the proverbial fat lady will soon be clearing her throat for the final aria.