Unite Election — Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier

Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier (July, 2021) 

Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower…” 

Michael Murray: murraymicha@gmail.com; FaceBook: Michael Murray London


(1) Unite the Union’s 2021 election of a General Secretary to succeed Len McCluskey

(2) Doing the numbers: importance of Unite election result for the Labour Party

(3) Trade unionism and politics: a case of  “Westminster or the Workplace” ?

(4) Howard’s End? 

(1) Unite the Union’s 2021 election of a General Secretary to succeed Len McCluskey

Earlier this year the 1.4 million-strong Unite the Union’s EC set in motion the rule-book based procedure for the election of a General Secretary to replace the outgoing GS, Len McCluskey.

Soon after, four names were submitted to contest the position: Howard Beckett, Steve Turner, Sharon Graham and Gerard Coyne. The first three are all existing Assistant General Secretaries (there are 5 Unite AGSs in total) – an appointed, not elected, position in the union. 

The fourth candidate, Gerard Coyne, is a former full time Unite official who narrowly lost out to Len McCluskey in the 2016/7 GS election and, thus, on those grounds alone, has to be considered a serious contender. 

And a serious candidate also, due to the radically changed political environment that now obtains. Whereas the 2017 Unite election was held in the immediate aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership victory in September 2016: a highpoint of Corbynism which owed not a little to the active support of Len McCluskey, he only managed a few percentage point victory over his right wing rival.     

How a self-avowed right winger should have done so well in the Unite leadership election at the height of Corbynism is explained, first, by the anti-Corbyn faction taking a hand in the contest – something we’re seeing yet again.  But the key factor was the participation in that election of a second candidate of the left by the name of Ian Allinson, who stood as a“rank and file” candidate. His winning 13.2% share of the vote was enough to narrow the gap between McCluskey and Coyne’s vote share to a couple of percentage points (45,5%  v  41.3%). A slightly larger vote would have let Coyne through.     

According to Unite’s press release, 2nd July, this year’s branch nomination results were as follows: Turner 525; Graham 349; Beckett 328 and Coyne 196, enough to get Coyne over the line, with a few to spare. 

This gave rise to the strong possibility of a three-way split in the left vote – this time favouring Coyne more than the two-way left split of the previous election. So, it’s understandable that, in the post-Corbyn era of enhanced factional Labour Party involvement in influencing union elections, and the added phenomenon of the “Blue Wall” of uncertain political allegiances, there was considerable panic on the left when Coyne, though coming last, managed to achieve sufficient Unite branch nominations to make it onto the ballot paper.  

A lesson learned from the 2016/7 Unite leadership election is that branch nominations, which this year, of themselves, ought to see Turner safely home in the “First Past The Post Electoral” system, does not necessarily translate into votes in the bag when the membership is balloted.     

And in changed times, with loyalties more fickle and working class disillusionment with the democratic process at an all time low – as the rarely talked about low voter turnout in recent by-elections showed – voting outcomes are uncertain and a right wing victory cannot be ruled out.    

So, what to do?   

(2) Doing the numbers on the importance of the Unite election result for the Labour Party

A recent article by Eli Folan, founder of the podcast “Stats for Lefties” clearly shows why the Unite election is so important to the Labour Party, apart from its importance to the future of  Unite itself, and how it could have repercussions for decades to come – for the Labour Party and for Unite.   

Folan uses just a couple of graphics to illustrate how a Coyne win would shift the centre of power in the Labour Party to the right.

First, the composition of the Labour Party’s Annual Conference is a 50:50 trade union to membership divide. 

(The bloc vote as part of the democratic process of the Labour Party is a whole other problematic, not discussed here but has to be acknowledged. The campaign for Labour democracy and the composition and role of  Labour’s NEC will be the subject of a future article.

Within the 50% trade union bloc the Left trade unions currently comprise an estimated  strength of 18.3%. That portion of the trade union bloc vote would fall to 5.1% with a Coyle victory. The pro-Starmer portion of the trade union bloc vote would increase from 31.7% to 44.9% .

Second, the 40 seat Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) which currently has an estimated 24 pro-Starmer seats and 14 left seats – the other 2 seats are occupied by the so-called “Open Labour” group – would instead comprise 26 pro-Starmer, 12 pro-Left and, of course, the 2 “Open Labour” seats.

Folan draws the conclusions for the Labour Party of a Coyne victory:  ”If Unite swings to the right, two things will happen. First, Starmer will be just one seat short of a supermajority (66%) on the NEC of the Labour Party, allowing him to implement many changes to Labour’s rules with relative ease. 

Second the Labour Leader will be able to rely on 90% of the trade union votes (ie 44.9% of total votes) at party conference, meaning he’d need the backing of just 11% of party members (5.5% of total votes) to pass his agenda.

In short, Unite’s influence within Labour is so huge that the loss of it would prove a serious setback for the party left, leaving Starmer with virtually carte blanche and the left with little ability to challenge him.” (Ali Folan, Novara Media’s on-line magazine, available on NM’s web-site, 21/06/2021) 

(3) Trade unionism and politics: a case of  “Westminster or the Workplace” ?

Folan, in the article cited above,  acknowledges Howard Beckett’s principled decision to withdraw from the election to ensure against handing the election to the right wing Coyne.  He advises Sharon Graham to do likewise, or, at least work with Steve Turner to counter the threat of Coyne. But, her more recently released election video doesn’t hold out much hope of that. Her slogan is “Back to the Workplace.”  

“We now stand at a crossroads, she says.“There is a clear choice for our members to make. It’s Westminster versus the workplace. Let’s make the workplace choice and get back to our members, back to the workplace, back to protecting jobs pay and conditions. Back to being a union.

“Back to being a union.”? As if being a union didn’t historically and necessarily include a role in the political democracy of the country. 

The front page of Gerard Coyne’s election Manifesto takes a similar line on trade unionism and politics. It reads: “This Manifesto was forged over months of discussion with 100s of  Reps throughout the UK and Ireland.  You told me you want more support for Reps and members and an end to messing about in Westminster politics. That’s what I will deliver.”

The Unite Rule Book spells out the Objects of the union, not just for the benefit of the members, but because it is legally obliged to do so under various pieces of trade union legislation.  

The Unite Rule Book, in Rule 2: “Objects”,  defines a workplace role for Unite and –  spelled out at greater length –  political role –  including an international dimension. 

2.1.2 identifies the primary role of the union in organising the workers to achieve, and attempt to maintain, good wages and conditions.  

2.1.4  (“Objects”)  How the union deals with the politics of the wider society – with which, it is implicitly recognised, the workplace is inextricably bound.: 

“To have a strong political voice, fighting on behalf of working peoples’ interests, and to influence the political agenda locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, so as to promote a Socialist vision for:

*a more equal society in which wealth is distributed from the rich to the poor, including by means of progressive taxation and other regulatory measures to restrict excessive wealth

*a collective society in which public services are directly provided on the basis of public need and not private greed, and a fair system of welfare and benefits to support those in need

*public ownership of important areas of economic activity and services, including health, education, water, post, rail and local passenger transport. 

But 2.1.5 (Objects) is the kicker: “To further political objectives including by affiliation to the Labour Party.“ (Rule Book, Unite the Union, 2019; Accessible on line) 

It really is hard to believe an Assistant General Secretary of a union – Graham, or a former Unite senior officer  – Coyne, asperity to become General Secretary,  could seriously propose a choice between “Westminister and the workplace” after reading the foregoing union Objects

Not least, it could be said in parenthesis, there being so many representative political, bodies, local and regional that the union has to, and does, deal with before you even get to Westminster, as stipulated in the Rules above. And in daily life. Or, not acknowledging that Unite’s affiliation includes serious bankrolling of the Labour Party?  (About 4 pages of the Rule Book is taken up with the conditions appertaining to, and the operation of, Unite’s Political Fund). Or the key role of Unite in Labour’s NEC?  Or, that Unite sponsors around 100 Labour MPs?  

Are Coyne and Graham saying that, as aspirant General Secretary of Unite they can walk away from all that history and politics? Or, far more serious: their obligation, as officers, to conform to and promote the Unite Rule Book’s stated “Objects” ? 

Rule 14.9 is clear on where the decision-making authority of Unite is: “The Government, management and control of the Union shall be vested in the EC collectively, which may do such things consistent with the rules and objects of the Union as it may consider expedient to promote the interests of the Union or any to its members.”

Rule 14.9.4  goes on to elaborate on the supervisory role of the EC on behalf of the 1.4 million members:

“The EC shall have the power to … appoint all officers who are employed as such by the Union … other than the General Secretary. 

The promotion of individual officers (up to but excluding General Secretary) and the allocation/reallocation of officer roles shall be subject to the approval of the EC in each case.”   

So, how does AGS Sharon Graham get to re-interpret the key section of the Unite Rule Book, the “Objects,” where the raison d’être and purpose of Unite is spelled out?

This is how union democracy is supposed to work in the relationship between FTOs and members: 

“… by joining a trade union, the member enters into an agreement and joins with all other members in authorising officers or others to carry out certain duties and functions on their collective behalf. The basic terms of the agreement are to be found in the union’s rule book.” (Heaton v TGWU 1972 summarised by Malcolm and Lewis in “Employment Law,” 2020)

Getting the right balance between the union’s workplace and  political role might be a legitimate concern. But the binary choice, “Westminster” or “Workplace” presented in these two election appeals: can only be attributed to their choosing  to go with the lowest common denominator and the prevailing populist zeitgeist.    

And the sad truth is that, in the current political malaise in the Labour movement, this may be working for them.   

At the Turner-Beckett Unity rally (Reference below), Steve Turner presented an impressive list of full time staff at all levels in the union who have given him their support. That is  a very important requisite of the unity of purpose necessary for his five year tenure to be a success in these trying times. But that’s not where his mandate will come from. That mandate is reliant on the unfathomable, malleable silent majority out there which almost did for Len McCluskey in 2016/7. And that was the 12+% that bothered to vote. 

(4) Howard’s End ? 

Finally, a word about Howard Beckett and his decision to withdraw from the Unite GS election in favour of Steve Turner.  

Howard lit up the Lockdown for me. Speaking truth to power. And with such inspiring eloquence. The attention to detail and the feistiness of the true “Nordie,” whether of the Nationalist or Unionist communities – and he is the proud product of both. The lawyer’s skills and the fighter’s mindset – for he is a lawyer, and a fighter.     

The only other left candidate, Graham, has made it clear where she stands. It’s “Back to the Workplace”  – and becoming the first woman GS.   

Living in London I’ve had most contact with Turner, through the various Left Labour fringe groups. He’s been consistent over that period of time. He doesn’t purport, and he isn’t, an “attack dog.”  A fear is that he is too conciliatory, too much the mister nice guy, a soft touch for the perceived machiavellianism  of Labour’s “new management.”  

Many, me included, were disappointed that Howard retired from the election. But it was the right thing to do, especially since Starmer-controlled Labour appears to have contrived to have him suspended to harm his chances in the election – the fate of many throughout Labour Party left activists. Either way, being suspended would have compromised any future role as General Secretary of Unite in his relationship with the Labour Party.  

People who retain doubts about Howard’s decision to stand down – or, indeed, also, those who agree with it, should make a point of watching the videoed rally of the announcement of him standing down and pledging his support to Steve Turner. It’s called: “STEVE TURNER’S UNITY RALLY TO WIN, FEATURING HOWARD BECKETT.”  It’s on Youtube.  

Howard’s end? Beckett, hasn’t gone away. In the old Irish proverb of his mother’s birthplace, Waterford, Ireland: “Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach.” = “The Powers will have another day.”  An allusion to the usurpation of the Power family property by Cromwell. Just down the road from where greedy Irish capitalists purloined the occupational pension fund of Waterford Crystal employees – since restored to them (in whole or in part? I don’t know the details yet) through the efforts of Howard Beckett. I do know the former “Glass” Shop Stewards Convenor, Jimmy Kelly,  was present at the Turner Unity Rally, because I was there too, having rejoined Unite, through Hackney and Islington Community Branch, inspired by Howard’s vision of trade unionism in the community: a vision for the 21st century.

Remaining Unite General Secretary Election Timetable:

Voting papers dispatched to Unite members with voting rights: July 5th

Deadline for return of votes to Scrutineer: 23 August (noon)

Results declared: 26th August 2021

2 thoughts on “Unite Election — Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier

  1. Hi Michael
    Good to hear from you in your “Diary of an ex Corbyn foot soldier”.
    I was very happy to be on board for Howard Beckett’s Unite GS election campaign. We had a great band of supporters here in the “Ireland4Beckett” group as part of the overall campaign across the Workplaces, Branches, Regions and Nations.
    I was also disappointed but supportive of Howards decision to stand down and support Steve.
    Hard to predict the result of the GS election for many of the reasons you outline.
    My friendship with Howard goes back a good number of years to the period when I chaired our Union’s Executive and a relationship which strengthened during my decade as the Irish Secretary. As you correctly reference with Howard as legal secretary added to the support of Tony Woodley and Len McCluskey we were well on our way to achieving the fantastic Pension Case victory on behalf of 1774 members in Waterford. Victory would not have been possible without a Union to support us in this case for pension justice against the Irish Government – through the Irish Courts and then on to the European Court of Justice. As individual workers we could not sustain a case with a potential cost if we lost running to Millions. I was lucky to have had the support of local union activists in Waterford and in other Unions in Ireland. Two friends Walter Cullen and Tom Hogan deserve special mention.
    Finally, your quotes from the Unite RULE BOOK IN Rule 2 “Objects” gives us a timely reminder of what we stand for.
    Best wishes Michael and hope we meet up sometime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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