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Left likely to consolidate its influence on Unite executive – but will it remain a United Left?

unite rosetteNominations closed last week for the elections to the executive of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, and, based on an analysis of the nominations received, it seems likely that the United Left which backed Len McCluskey for General Secretary and currently has a large majority on the executive is likely to consolidate its position.

The executive has been slightly reduced in size to 63 and there are now 24 territorial seats for the Union’s ten regions (including 10 reserved for women and 2 for BAME candidates), 35 industrial seats for 20 sectors (including 5 reserved for women and 2 for BAME candidates), and four equalities seats.

Ballot papers will be sent out to members eligible to vote in the last week of March and the ballot closes on 23 April. However, candidates are returned unopposed in 25 of the 63 seats, and 21 of these are United Left candidates. Furthermore, they are certain to be joined by at least 5 others since the only other organised faction, Unite Now, which should in Labour Party terms be seen as centre/centre-left (five out of the fourteen executive members who opposed the Collins report were supporters of Unite Now), has no candidates for a considerable number of seats, and has backed a number of United Left candidates.

There is virtually no evidence of a real right-wing: the old electoral machines that dominated the AEU, EETPU and even certain regions of the TGWU seem to have disappeared without trace. Nor is there much evidence of the Grassroots Left which was created to run the campaign for Jerry Hicks which secured 36% of the vote in last year’s general secretary election. No doubt that is partly the result of the implosion of the SWP, but it also exposes the fact that the support for Hicks was not in any way support for his programme, but merely the sum total of disgruntled and maverick opposition to McCluskey from right across the political spectrum.

Based on the number of nominations received, it seems likely that the United Left will win at least as many seats as it won in 2011 (43), but on a smaller executive (down from 65 to 63), and it could do even better, perhaps as many as 49. It has already won all the seats in Scotland and the North West regions, and seems likely to win all those in London & Eastern, the North East & Yorkshire and Wales, with other region possibly being split. It has already won seats in the Chemical, Civil Air Transport, Rural & Agricultural and Road Transport industrial sectors and seems likely to win at least the Automotive, Finance & Legal, Food Drink & Tobacco, and Passenger services sectors. Other sectors will be closer fought or split.

It is also worth considering what effect will the recent history of disagreement within Unite over the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions will have. By and large, these disagreements have been amongst people who remain in agreement about much and will not let their disagreements divide them. It took the United Left some time to clarify its disagreement with Len McCluskey’s initial stance on Ed Miliband’s proposed changes precisely because most members were torn between their disagreement with Len over specific aspects of the proposals and their essential loyalty to him as general secretary. Even the Socialist Party managed to criticise the eventual support for Collins by Unite without making any criticism of Len McCluskey.

I have heard it said that one or two people who regard themselves as close to Unite’s collective leadership have referred to those who remained critical of the Collins report as “ultra-left”. This is odd since roughly the same proportion of Unite Now opposed it at the special EC in February as members of United Left. But it is also simply wrong, since most people on both sides of the debate amongst leading members of United Left and those full-time officials who come from its ranks understand the importance of continuing unity. No-one, on either side,  wants recriminations about the Collins report.

That is not to say that there will not be further differences of opinion. The possibility of an amalgamation with PCS is a continuing source of concern to some, because it is seen to lack industrial logic, or because it is argued that a further period of consolidation is desirable before further major amalgamations. But of particular importance to this discussion is the concern about the politics and affiliations of the resulting amalgamated union. Some see the inclusion of PCS as likely to strengthen the support for disaffiliation from Labour, and the influx of Socialist Party activists – a major component of the PCS Left Unity faction – as capable of tilting United Left against Labour.

At present, whilst there is inevitably much criticism of Labour’s current policy direction, there is also general agreement that Labour offers the only viable alternative government and that Unite’s political strategy must therefore focus on a Labour victory. Although the Socialist Party are a component of United Left, they currently have no members of the executive council. In the event of an amalgamation with the PCS, they would, inevitably, form a numerically more important component. Len McCluskey, who was once regarded as a fellow traveller of Militant, still maintains good relations with their successors, the Socialist Party, which backed his candidature for general secretary.

There is already a range of views about whether an ‘austerity-lite’ Labour government from 2015 should prompt a reconsideration of Unite’s affiliation to Labour. The possibility of an amalgamation with PCS exacerbates these concerns. This is a potential source of division. Butfor many people, preserving the unity of the United Left will remain a top priority.


One Comment

  1. TC says:

    25 out of 63 seats not contested. What does that say about the state of lay activism and democracy in Unite?

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