As the ballot papers go out for the Unite General Secretary election, the need to re-elect Len McCluskey, in what is one of the most critical trade union elections in Britain in many years, becomes increasingly clear, argues Alan Thornett.
Many Unite members received emails last week sent by the right-wing candidate Gerald Coyne making scurrilous attacks on the direction of the union under McCluskey’s leadership.
The core of Coyne’s attack on McCluskey – and the reason that is essential that he is defeated, is his determination to break UNITE from its support for Jeremy Corbyn. One of Coyne’s campaign emails claimed that the union had been “bankrolling Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaigns” and others aimed at McCluskey himself.
In an email on March 20th Coyne claimed that the UNITE leader gave “£225,000 of your money to Jeremy Corbyn to get him elected as Labour leader”. This was combined with a further allegation that there are ‘plans to link your union Unite with far-left political faction Momentum if Len McCluskey is re-elected.’
This coincided with an appearance of Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, touring the media studios repeating the same claim: that McCluskey was apparently preparing to bankroll Momentum in order to take over the Labour Party. These are people who lost the last two elections and are quite willing to see Labour defeated at the next providing Corbyn is destroyed in the process.
The Sun on March 27 has a half page article supporting Coyne headlined ‘Defeat the Puppet Master’ and half-page cartoon showing Corbyn being manipulated with McCluskey pulling the strings.
The establishment and the Labour right are well aware that the biggest blow that could be dealt against Corbyn at the present time would be for Coyne to win this election – not to mention what it would mean for struggles against cuts, to defend the NHS or to strengthen trade union organisation.
Coyne talks about wanting to ‘stop playing politics’ but his ‘vision’ would take UNITE back to the days where workers were told that trade unions should have nothing to do with politics that should be left to Parliament.
The third, left of McCluskey candidate, Ian Allinson – a Unite rep at Fujitsu’s plant in Manchester, with a long track record as a trade union activist – would be a good candidate in other circumstances. On many questions his politics are much closer to those of Socialist Resistance’s than McCluskey’s – particularly on free movement and Trident – where McCluskey has certainly been to Corbyn’s right.
But Allinson fails to understanding the significance of Corbyn’s anti-austerity leadership of the Labour Party and why the unions should be supporting him. His first campaign leaflet argues ‘If members want a Corbyn government, Unite needs to shift the debate by fighting in workplaces and communities now, rather than over-relying on internal battles within Labour’.
Of course he is right that there do need to be fights to defend jobs, conditions and services now. But it’s not Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership or UNITE’s support for that which undermines them but many other factors – including a lack of experience of successful struggles. It’s a false counter position which suggests that the struggle to defeat the Blairites and the right inside the Labour Party is a separate battle from that to win better living standards, trade union rights or public services. Actually success in one enhances the other.
In other circumstances, it might have been right to have backed Ian Allinson. But given the stakes involved for the future of the whole of the left Unite members would be well advised to put the defence of Corbyn’s anti-austerity Labour leadership to the fore at this time and not risk splitting the left vote.