Here’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.