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Unite election: as important as the Labour leadership?

Suddenly, the election for the General Secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union looks much closer and there’s much at stake. The sudden lurch to the right of Les Bayliss, winning the backing of the right-wing press, could affect the political direction of Labour and the TUC.

Although he’s trailing in nominations behind left candidate, Len McCluskey, Bayliss has clearly decided that his best chance of success is to cast aside any Left pretensions and adopt the mantle of Ken Jackson and his right-wing forbears in the AEU and EETPU. And if he won, it could radically change the political balance of  both the Labour conference and TUC.

The candidacy of Les Bayliss had been promoted by the Workers Uniting Group which defines itself  as “a broad based left-progressive organisation within Unite the Union” but was in reality a more-centre-than-left grouping essentially limited to the Amicus part of the new union.

Len McCluskey is backed by United Left, “the socialist rank & file movement in Unite”, but, as we reported, is attracting support across the whole spectrum of the TGWU parts of Unite as well as from the former Amicus elements.

Just before the TUC convened at Manchester, Bayliss released a statement which was intended to redefine himself as the right-wing candidate. The statement on his website, extensively covered in the News of the World and elsewhere, opposed the public sector strikes envisaged in the TUC anti-cuts strategy:

Public sector strikes will only deprive the vulnerable of the services they need and the services the Tories want to cut.  We’ll be doing the bad guy’s job for him. Strikes will also change the victims, our members, into the villains of the piece.”

In response to the experience of the BA dispute, he also promised:

If I am General Secretary of Unite there will never be any strikes called over the Christmas holidays.

Until that point, Les Bayliss had been one of three former Amicus, Leftish challengers to Len McCluskey, the only candidate who could claim support from across the whole union. The others were Jerry Hicks, ex-convenor at Rolls Royce in Bristol, ex-SWP and now in Respect, and (trailing further behind) Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary for the public sector. Now Bayliss is the right-wing candidate and undisputed challenger for the job.

The nominations have not yet been published – McCluskey’s camp reckon they have “well over 650 branch nominations”, probably more than three times what the other three can muster – but the fact that Bayliss now has the media and the old right-wing machine behind him may change everything.

Hicks and Cartmail are unlikely to withdraw, which at least prevents the contest turning into a TGWU versus Amicus battle, but it certainly increases the pressure on the Left to vote for McCluskey rather than waste their votes on another candidate.

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