Breaking with the bureaucrats: how to reclaim Unite

Joe Hayns writes about the need to end the bureaucratic stasis at the top of Unite and support dynamic grassroots struggles led by rank-and-file members.

(Photo: Andrew Skudder/Flickr)

On Monday (27 March) Unite members start to vote on who will be their next General Secretary – the centrist incumbent, Len McCluskey; the right-winger, Gerard Coyne; or the socialist, rank-and-file candidate, Ian Allinson. Over the next few days we will be publishing a series of short articles on the core themes of Ian’s campaign, which rs21 fully endorses and supports. For one of our previous longer explorations of this subject, see this article by Sara Bennett.

The labour movement is living through a period of historic defeat: never before have there been so few days lost to strikes for such a long period. But, over the last 18 months, several smaller unions have shown the power of worker-led struggles against bosses to take back wages from profit, and galvanise solidarity in the workplace.

Couriers working for CitySprint, represented by the courier branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), got a 30% pay rise after a sustained campaign; more recently, protests outside Harrods by United Voices of the World (UVW) forced the company to give 100% of tips to workers (management had previously taken 75%).

And, activist-led Unite campaigns against racist pay structures at Fawley Refinery in Hampshire – in defiance of the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ rhetoric of sections of the bureaucracy – have shown that bigger unions, too, can fight successfully against both bigotry and exploitation.

A break with the bureaucracy

One criticism of Allinson’s pro-rank-and-file campaign is that it will split the left vote, and that Coyne would be a disaster for Unite members and the wider left. It is certainly true that Coyne’s victory would be all our defeat. However, this seemingly reasonable argument makes two mistakes.

The first is to accept the tabloid characterisation of McCluskey as ‘Red Len’, a defender of the Left in the Labour Party and elsewhere. The reality is far more complicated. McCluskey has made some terrific speeches, and gains credibility on the Left by funding certain campaigns and causes, but his positions on freedom of movement, Trident and more speak to a cautious and bureaucratic mindset that McCluskey has ultimately failed to break out of. There is no sign that he can or will reverse the general tendency in which the union bureaucracy works to demobilise, not stimulate, grassroots struggle.

Hence – the draconian 2016 Trade Union Act? No effective opposition. The junior doctors’ defence of the NHS? No effective support. And without the right leadership to take the fight to employers and the government, the potential represented by  victories like those of IWGB and UVW will continue to be ignored, if McCluskey is returned to office.

Second, and following from this, is that, as Allinson says, ‘there are those who would not vote at all if the choice was between two unappealing establishment candidates’. Just ask any one of the millions of people that Hillary Clinton assumed would vote for her against Donald Trump. Turnout for the General Secretary election will be rock-bottom low (in the region of 15%). In this context, socialists should spend their time and energy putting forward a popular, energising Left alternative – not rushing to shore up one faction of the disenchanting mainstream.

Moreover, Coyne’s Blairite views and wholly negative approach to campaigning are not an attractive combination to Unite members: it is likely that many of Coyne’s potential supporters are not right-wingers, but simply members who are fed up with the leadership and wish to vote against McCluskey. By providing an alternative to both candidates, Allinson’s campaign has not boosted Coyne – if anything, it is eating into Coyne’s potential vote.

Allinson’s campaign is bringing together workplace activists from across the country. McCluskey has been forced not to the right (as he would have been if only Coyne had stood against him), but to the left. And, crucially, conversations are happening and will continue to happen amongst trade unionists and socialists who want to see the labour movement’s historic defeat reversed.

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