No challenge, no traction

Last time I wrote about three things that had happened in the general secretary election campaign. More recently I’ve been thinking about things that aren’t happening, but which might have been expected to.

First, there seems to be little or no real challenge to Len McCluskey’s record in office from his challengers.  Yes, Ian Allinson has said, in a rather non-specific way, that more should have been done to challenge the Trade Union Act pushed through by the Tories, and that the union should have abandoned its members in Barrow (more on this below).

That seems to be as far as it goes.  Where is the alternative programme, the challenge to McCluskey’s industrial and managerial stewardship of the union?  Nothing. Just vague smears which, all considerations of truth and decency aside, don’t really cut through with the membership. McCluskey’s claims regarding support for members in dispute, legal wins on industrial issues, leverage campaign triumphs and the like are not only going unchallenged (because they are true?), but no one is suggesting how they could be built upon.  This silence speaks volumes.

Second, Allinson’s campaign is getting little or no traction.  There are two main reasons for this.  The media framing of the contest as one of left (McCluskey) against right (Coyne) leaves Allison no space.  His pose as “Corbyn’s real supporter” is somewhat undermined by his non-membership of the Labour Party – he prefers something called Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century.

By contrast, Jerry Hicks in 2013 was the only challenger to McCluskey and therefore placed to get every oppositional vote available. In 2010 he could manoeuvre in a field of four with left/right lines blurred by the Amicus/T&G standoff.  For this reason alone, projections that Allinson will get anything like Hicks’ 75,000 votes of 2013 are, I think, deluded. He is also boldly demanding the sacking of much of the union’s membership. This can be seen as either principled or insane, but when he promises to scrap Trident, HS2, Hinckley Point, Heathrow expansion etc (and there is a lot of etc) he is destroying tens of thousands of industrial jobs in the here-and-now (or very near future) on the promise of “one million climate jobs” on the never-never.

Allinson may be the first candidate in a major democratic election to campaign on a platform of abolishing much of the electorate.  At any event, the penny may be dropping that any branch nominating him is voting to fire thousands of fellow-workers – they are not to be invited to the 21stcentury revolution, it appears.

Third, the grown-ups still haven’t turned up at Coyne campaign HQ. I’m not being facetious here. There may be time for that later.  What I mean is that the person-with-the-plan seems stuck in traffic.  Take last week’s big news – transparently planted stories about a disciplinary procedure targeting Coyne last year.  Unite Observer has no information on that, or whether he is indeed on a written warning.  But look at the detail: Coyne’s apparent/alleged offence had been to speak, without permission, at a gathering of Labour MPs in Westminster.  That’s right.  Labour MPs.  In Westminster.  Somebody thought that it was a good wheeze to leak a story that the candidate whose whole platform is no playing Westminster politics, no focus on Labour had err….taken time out to play Westminster politics with Labour MPs.

If McCluskey’s team miss this open goal, then they are not the operators of legend.  A little bird has suggested that this counter-productive PR brainwave is on the account of Jack Dromey MP. If true, Coyne should remember this:  Jack Dromey stood for T&G deputy general secretary against Communist traditionalist Jack Adams – and LOST.  He stood for general secretary against gloomy centrist Bill Morris – and LOST.  He stood for GS once more against ebullient agitator Tony Woodley – and LOST.  So, broadly, the union candidate Dromey can’t lose against has not yet been invented.  Whatever, this lack of coherence is becoming embarrassing.

Rule three of being a puppet – only cutting the strings gets you your self-respect back.

Is any of this impacting out in the field?  A slightly glum Coyne supporter I spoke to admitted that their candidate is struggling outside his Midlands base, although there are hopes that anti-Corbyn, rather than anti-McCluskey, sentiment may deliver something in Wales.  But that is in any case a small region. McCluskey backers are confident of landslides in the huge London/Eastern region and in the second-largest, the North-West, at least at the nomination stage.

If this happens, the danger is that Coyne will double-down on the smear-and-spin approach for want of a potent positive message.  Unite deserves better.

Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat

Three things of note happened in the election campaign this week.  To take them in the order they happened:

1. The Unite Now faction decided not to back any candidate for General Secretary, at least for the present.  Most likely this was to maintain the group’s internal unity.  As noted in the last Unite Observer blog,  while both candidates would have wanted Unite Now’s backing, Coyne probably needed it more.  In theory he should have been able to secure it. Unite Now is by no means right-wing, but it is not full of Corbyn admirers either – its main support is in the aerospace sector.  It accounts for about 8-10 members of the union Executive Council and mainly focuses on union governance issues.  Withholding support from McCluskey is hardly fatal to him, since he has the secure backing of the much larger United Left network.  But it leaves Coyne without any significant base of support.  Moreover, several of Unite Now’s biggest hitters, like Steve Hibbert (Rolls Royce, Derby), Mark Wood (local government, Southampton) and Mark Thomas (aerospace, Bristol), have individually come out for McCluskey.  Their voice carries weight in their workplaces, so it looks like Len gets most of the votes, even without formal group endorsement.

2. Gerard Coyne launched his manifesto atop (on the step of, actually) a bus in Birmingham.  His only possibly telling point was a pledge to freeze union dues for two years.  This could be popular – while it is actually a decision not in the General Secretary’s gift, many members may not appreciate that fact.  But it is fairly small potatoes. The other issues he chooses to highlight are almost obsessively internal – how many Unite members are going to be enthused by a “value and audit committee”, or by sweeping pledges to “clean up Unite” through more transparency in property contracts?  Gerard, NOBODY CARES.  Most activists regard Unite as pretty well-managed and a paragon of good governance compared to the wild times of some of its predecessor unions in the not-too-distant past, and are far more focussed on workplace issues.  Indeed, his rhetoric risks being counter-productive – no officer or rep likes being told that the union that they serve is a sleazy cesspit run by bungling bullies, apparently Coyne’s take on Unite. 

All this continues to highlight Coyne’s lack of a real agenda.  The only policy issue he has made his own is his embrace of Theresa May’s “hard Brexit” strategy, notwithstanding the threat this will pose to manufacturing and finance sector jobs, because it allows him to trail his coat for a largely imaginary Farageist vote among the Unite membership.  And even that issue was ignored at the start of his campaign Len McCluskey: 10 reasons why he will win and has now disappeared again in his 150-word statement seeking nominations. 

Rule two of being a puppet – your nose grows longer with every porky.

It still looks like Gerard Coyne’s campaign is driven by either personal ambition, which is no crime but needs some other justification, or the needs of the right-wing PLP machine, which is a crime and can have no justification. Doubtless Coyne thought it was cute to say that, unlike McCluskey, he would not share a flat with Watson, but it merely invites the response that sharing a flat is one thing, but sharing a bed is another.

3. The blockbuster statement of support for McCluskey signed, as predicted a week ago, by almost the entirety of the union’s lay hierarchy – all but four EC members, more than ninety per cent of regional and national committee chairs – and its top officialdom.  The only senior officers not supporting McCluskey seem to be Gerard himself and his brother Kevin, a national officer.  The other missing names – Chief of Staff Andrew Murray and acting General Secretary Gail Cartmail – are most likely accounted for by the impartiality their roles impose.  As I have argued before, to win against such a weight of support reaching throughout the union, and far beyond the left, is all but impossible.

So as things stand, the Spellar-Dromey team running Campaign Coyne are losing, a familiar experience to both of them in internal union elections, despite a lot of indulgence from the right-wing press.  They are still producing media waves, but as Chinese philosophy puts it “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Len McCluskey: 10 reasons why he will win

Let’s start by explaining the ten reasons why Len McCluskey will win, whatever crafty arithmetical games are played to suggest otherwise for no reason other than pumping up the morale of his opponents.

  1. Record: Set aside the Labour Party issue for now.  McCluskey’s record in office has been pretty good, all circumstances considered.  His use of leverage tactics against employers has secured victory in industrial disputes which would otherwise have ended in the traditional glorious defeat, the more aggressive legal department has notched up wins from blacklisting to holiday pay, the union has set up a huge strike fund which is sometimes enough to scare bad bosses in itself, it has remained financially well-managed, he has landed the key UCATT merger and so on.  There’s a lot to like here, and all the evidence is that most activists do.
  1. Incumbency: Power is a real thing, even if you don’t abuse it.  My amateur count gives McCluskey the backing of at least 36 of the union’s 40 most senior officials, and maybe 58 of the 62 members of the lay Executive Council.  Now think of the influence each of those key figures has with wider circles of the membership.  Institutional weight – it’s a juggernaut.
  1. United Left:  The UL has won every election going since Unite was established.  It is the only faction in the union with a nationally-organised grass-roots structure in all regions and many workplaces.  The only other organised faction, Unite Now, has a smaller reach and is not as of now backing Gerard Coyne in any case (it is by no means a right-wing grouping).  Ground War?  Game over.
  1. Gerard Coyne: McCluskey’s only significant opponent is regarded as a likeable guy and a pretty competent manager of the union’s fifth-biggest region (out of ten).  But he is the Owen Smith of Unite – the charisma fairy did not tarry long at his cradle, he has never developed a distinctive agenda for the union’s future and he is virtually unknown to Unite activists outside the Midlands.  He will run to the right because that is where his Parliamentary Labour Party handlers will direct him, but that is the Unite equivalent of marching on Moscow in midwinter.  
  1. Data:  And if you must march into the blizzard, know the territory!  McCluskey’s team will have access to the very detailed info regarding Unite branches support patterns from the two previous Unite general secretary elections, both won by their man.  In the age of data-driven campaigning that is worth ten per cent at least off the bat.
  1. John Spellar:  Cursed is the candidate backed by John Spellar, the rambunctious hard-right Labour MP who has taken time out from trying to trip up his Party leader to call the shots for Campaign Coyne – he was seen entering Coyne’s million-pound Midlands mansion last week, and it wasn’t for mince pies.  Spellar has backed the losing candidate in every election he has been involved with in both Labour and his union this century, staring with Ken Jackson’s defeat by Derek Simpson for the Amicus top job back in 2002.  That’s half-a-dozen straight defeats for a man who would be the Eddie the Eagle of our movement had he but charm.  You might as well make a wax doll of yourself and stick a pin in it.
  1. McCluskey’s campaign:  Out on the stump, McCluskey is a formidable and persuasive campaigner. If he gets out of the office, he will be hard for Coyne to keep up with. He has also promoted or hired some dynamic people in his years in office. Less Eddie the Eagle, more Wenger’s Wonders of 2003-04 (unbeaten all season for those who don’t know), some of his team have an unbroken run of victories in internal union elections stretching back to the 1980s.  These may be the only people in the labour movement who don’t break out in a sweat at the words “Tom Watson”.
  1. Labour:  This is supposed to be the ace-in-the-hole of the anti-McCluskey camp and, yes, some anti-political rhetoric will resonate.  But here’s the paradox:  McCluskey’s campaign appears to be run by supporters in the union, while Coyne’s is being managed from Westminster, by a group of Labour MPs, “saving Labour” strategists and lobby correspondents.  Given a choice of “puppet-master” – Coyne’s chosen line of attack on McCluskey – and puppet, who would vote for the guy on the end of the string?
  1. Coyne’s campaignRule One of being a puppet:  You get jerked about.  So Coyne’s initial campaign material sent to Unite branches makes no reference at all to Brexit or the related problem of free movement of labour, critical issues for the Unite base.  Then someone tells him that McCluskey has been making a lot of well-received interventions on these issues so he comes out swinging with a speech on migration characterised (including by the FT) as UKIP-lite – maybe because it failed to mention opposition to racism at all.  Another screeching hand-brake turn and the latest campaign video champions, correctly, the right of EU citizens to remain in Britain post-Brexit.  Net result:  Incoherence, and criticisms from all sides.
  1. Whining: The Twittersphere is clogged with bogus anti-McCluskey accounts complaining about this or that alleged breach of election procedures – most seem sublimely trivial.  Clear alternative agendas for Unite are much harder to find.  Now we all like a good moan, but if your strategy is nothing more than whingeing about the ref two minutes after the match has started, then frankly a smell of death is hanging over your game plan.

So – can we all go home then?  Not so fast.  There is a long road ahead.  The campaign will get even dirtier – someone seems to have reached deep into their purse to photocopy, stamp and post out several thousand anonymous anti-McCluskey smear leaflets to key activists over the Christmas period.  Given what is at stake, the Coyne campaign will not want for readies, and some mud sticks.  Nor is incumbency proof against making mistakes, like following the media agenda and talking about Jeremy Corbyn.  Furthermore, the right will probably coordinate their attacks with Trotskyist vanity candidate Ian Allinson to complicate things. Finally, defending a record in office is harder than making generalised calls for change in an environment where unions remain relatively weak and so many workers are dissatisfied with life in the endless economic slump.

For all that, it’s hard to see this going to penalties.  Even in an era of unexpected election outcomes, takeover of Unite by a PLP faction armed with UKIP rhetoric is not going to happen.  So my prediction: Come the end of the election in April, McCluskey will be back in the General Secretary’s office, Allinson will be rummaging the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International for the explanation for yet another setback for the cause, and Coyne will be sharing a consolation pair of Pukka Pies at West Brom with Tom Watson.