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Unite General Secretary election: Who is Ian Allinson?

Len McCluskey at CLASS fring meeting at Labour Conference 2012Here’s another election we can look forward to: the position of General Secretary in my union, Unite. The incumbent, Len McCluskey has announced his intention to stand down next year, effectively calling a by-election. If he’s victorious, it will allow him to serve out a full term before he heads off into retirement some time after the next general election. His declared opponent is Gerard Coyne, secretary of Unite’s West Midlands region. Widely seen as the candidate of the union’s right, in his opinion the union should concentrate on members’ issues and not internal Labour Party struggles. I’m sure that bold aspiration raised an eyebrow among Unite and Labour watchers. Anyway, the battle was set and the combat for Unite’s soul was about to begin. Then, much to everyone’s surprise, a third contender charged onto the field.

Ian Allinson is Fujitsu’s Unite convenor in Manchester, and has been involved in Unite and its forerunners for 25 years. He also has a blog, which has chronicled his union activities since 2007. Whereas Len and Gerard are both apparatus men, Ian can make a plausible claim for being the closest to union members. And, of course, he knows it. His challenge is framed in terms of a “grass-roots socialist challenge” to the union establishment. A Coyne-led union would be a backwards step, while he suggests Len’s leadership is a vote for an unacceptable status quo. For Ian, despite the militant-sounding rhetoric coming from the general secretary, this covers for a lack of effective leadership against cuts and job losses affecting Unite members.

While there might be some merit in these criticisms, it should be worth noting that Ian’s political background is our friends the Socialist Workers Party. Though, to his credit, he quit as the SWP imploded over that cover up and in the subsequent splits, it seems he’s retained an association with the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century group. No, that’s not the one that had a split over BDSM. Nor is this entirely a bolt from blue, at least where Ian’s record is concerned. In 2013 he backed Jerry Hicks, ex of the SWP and then of Respect against Len McCluskey and, again, on pretty much the same grounds.

Why mount this challenge, especially as the Unite left control the union and now face a challenge from the right? Ian and his comrades have given the impacts of a split vote some thought and came to the conclusion that Gerard Coyne’s challenge is not worth writing home about. Apparently, Unite members are “better” than voting for him. That’s not an entirely convincing analysis, it has to be said. Polling commissioned by Lord Ashcroft three years ago found 42% of members were prepared to vote for bourgeois parties. In other words, while there might be little support for the old union right in the apparatus the basis for such exists in the wider membership. That membership, like the membership as a whole is largely passive.

And this is where Ian’s analysis starts looking iffy. Turnout at the last general secretary was under 10%, which is a truly pitiful figure. It wouldn’t take much for a well-organised campaign to tap into the Corbyn-scepticism widespread across the labour movement and unseat Len. Gerard might affect a disinterest in Labour Party matters, but Labour First and Progress are not as squeamish. They are signing up new members in support of his candidacy – indeed, there has been a spike in new recruits. Enough to swing an election? Probably not, but plenty of people have this year have learned the folly of complacency. The arguments for Jerry Hicks don’t necessarily map on to arguments for Ian Allinson. Events, dear boy …

The second problem with Ian’s candidacy is political. He appears to share a chief tenet of Trotskyism as handed down through the SWP, that workers are always spoiling for a fight and be up for the big face off with capital if it wasn’t for the trade union leaders reining them in. As he has organised and led disputes, I can understand why Ian emphasises rank-and-file activity and workers’ appetites for resistance, but his position, unfortunately, is atypical in the trade union movement. Most union members are not champing at the bit. They are not looking for a general who can lead them into battles they’re, at the moment, unprepared for and unwilling to wage. Len and Gerard understand it – indeed, it’s this conservatism of trade unions that allow their bureaucracies to operate largely in the absence of mass participation from below. The question is whether Ian’s challenge would help shift this situation. I doubt it.

10 Comments

  1. Karl Stewart says:

    Thanks Phil, interesting article – (and nice to read something on an important issue, rather than the depressing moaning and whining about immigrants.)

    Anyway, not a member of Unite, so don’t ‘have a dog’ in this fight. But might be worth mentioning that the last time a general secretary decided to call his re-election a year early in order to save the union money, it didn’t end well for him.

    Just wanted to ask you, does Mr Allinson’s announced candidature make it more likely, in your opinion, that the SP will also decide to stand a candidate? And if so, would it be likely to be Rob Williams?

    If memory serves, I think he did try to win the backing of Unite’s Left organisation last time out, but then fell in behind McCluskey when the Unite Left voted to support him.

    Could it be a different story this time? What do you think?

    1. Jim Denham says:

      Socialist Party backs McCluskey:

      http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/24119/16-12-2016/unite-general-secretary-election-fight-the-blairites-vote-len-mccluskey

      Gist of article: Len’s not perfect, but he’s doing a pretty good job. Advice to McCluskey: He should stand for election on a platform which he is not going to stand on (because he has different politics).

      Real reason to support McCluskey in last paragraph: Four SPers are standing for election to the EC. If the SP does not support McCluskey, its members cannot stand on as part of the UL slate and are less likely to get elected.

      1. Karl Stewart says:

        Thanks for the info JimD. So, it’s looking like a three-way fight then.

  2. James MARTIN says:

    It’s always of interest when history repeats itself. 7 years ago another right-winger in Unite also stood against McCluskey and on an identical ‘anti-politics’ platform, the right-winger that time was Gerard’s brother Kevin (a third brother has a senior position in the WEA).

    Also of course as Phil has pointed out there was a very similar SWP-lite challenge then to that of Allinson by Jerry Hicks. But while Hicks did not get Coyne elected there is a risk that Allinson could do so for this latest right winger (and anyone who was around in Merseyside trade union and socialist circles in the 80s and 90’s will know how damaging the Coyne’s are despite their motivation being primarily about personal career advancement).

    Of course another aspect of history repeating itself is how the Labour hard-right attach themselves to the Coyne brothers, with the likes of Lukey Akehurst supporting both challenges (although getting Akehurst’s support these days is like being given the Black Spot, or employing John McTory in your campaign).

    Allinson should withdraw, his challenge is a stupid and potentially damaging sectarian stunt when we need maximum unity around McCluskey.

  3. Chris says:

    The SWP were right about the false rape accusation

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      No Chris, the SWP was wholly and completely wrong.

      They developed an internal regime based on unthinking obedience and dictatorial control, which created the conditions that enabled the whole range of abuses, from casual bullying all the way to extremely serious criminal assaults.

      This type of internal regime – not unique to the SWP by any means, indeed it’s common to many organisations which describe themselves as ‘democratic/centralist’ – is extremely unhealthy and should not be tolerated.

      1. Chris says:

        You have bought into security service propaganda.

        1. Karl Stewart says:

          And you’re probably not a real person…

          1. Chris says:

            OK 007, who do you think I am?

            Maybe you could ask your Special Branch buddies?

  4. David Pavett says:

    I notice that Ian Allinson has made a significant part of his campaign the defence of “free movement” as some kind of principle. There is no such principle.

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