When will Unite apply its own rules?

What do you do if you are Len McCluskey, or on his campaign team, and things have been going so badly even your own supporters are losing confidence?

Momentum supporter loses faith in McCluskey

It seems one of the answers is: bypass the union’s rules in your effort to get you campaign back on track.

Unite’s rules are crystal clear. The union’s central resources cannot be used to promote a candidate and nor can any candidate use the union’s corporate identity in their promotional material.

Rule 15

But Team McCluskey seem to think that the rules are for other people.

Here are two full time employees of Unite using social media channels clearly marked as Unite accounts promoting Len McCluskey:

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Steve Turner

Possibly these two – a regional secretary and a deputy general secretary – might claim they were posting on their personal accounts. But if they are personal accounts why are they called @jennieunite and @steveT_unite?

But, in any case, when it comes to believing they are outside the rules, they are amateurs compared to Len McCluskey’s own account … where every other tweet seems to feature Unite’s corporate identity…

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There is a serious point here: trade unions are member run organisations, run for the members. We give ourselves rules so that all of us operate on an equal basis. I am sure I am not the only member who thinks it not acceptable that Len McCluskey can appear to get away with breaking them because he is at the top of the pile. Every day this goes on is a day when all of us who pay our subs to Unite are being taken for granted.

So, come on Len McCluskey. Delete the tweets and promise not to repeat this behaviour.

Update: Ian Allinson is also complaining about a breach of the rules, but in a different way:

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Len McCluskey’s campaign is a mess

The campaign for General Secretary of Unite really caught fire today – leading the BBC’s bulletins in the morning and gaining traction as the day went on: with Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne confronting each over attitudes to the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit.

And big loser from the day seems to be McCluskey – whose campaign appears to be a complete mess.

It went wrong from the start for the incumbent: he had given an interview to the Daily Mirror in which he speculated at some length about whether and when Labour’s “awful” poll ratings would lead to Jeremy Corbyn quitting.

Faced with an opponent whose main pitch is that he spends too much time trying to act like the puppet master of the Labour Party and devotes nowhere near enough effort to looking after Unite’s members’ concerns, it was as much reckless as stupid, and must have left his campaign staff in despair.

What is more, it was an entirely unforced error. The Mirror is instinctively sympathetic to McCluskey (even if hostile to Corbyn) and there was no stitch-up to be seen. McCluskey simply pointed the machine gun at his feet and pulled the trigger.

Gerard Coyne, though, had other fish to fry before he even got around to exploiting McCluskey’s gaffe. He used today to deliver a tough message on Brexit and immigration – demanding that Theresa May issue an unequivocal vow to “take back control” of Britain’s borders.

 

That might have been an opportunity for McCluskey to hit back and rally his activist base but given the mess he had got himself into before Christmas over immigration he seemed unable to do so. Then he had appeared to also endorse a tougher line on migration: no doubt because he knows that the polling shows this to be a big concern for working class voters, including Unite members. But the ferocious backlash he faced from his supporters on the left forced him to backtrack and claim – rather unconvincingly – he’d been misrepresented.

What McCluskey now stands for over Europe is as clear as mud. He said today that his demand was “access to the single market” – but nobody has ever suggested British firms would be banned from selling on the continent, so it’s a deliberately or otherwise meaningless phrase. But demanding “membership” of the single market means endorsing free movement and he cannot bring himself to do that either.

McCluskey seems to have trapped himself in a web of indecision.

Coyne’s biggest victory, though, was surely to get the contest up in lights and more or less on his terms. His big strategic aim must be to raise the turnout and while not quite any publicity is good publicity, a day like today will have left him feeling very pleased.

The only (faintly) shining light for McCluskey is the seeming weakness of the campaign of the left challenger, Ian Allinson. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election in September 2015 much of Britain’s far left has infiltrated the Labour Party and, at the same time, and for reasons not connected to Corbynism, the Socialist Workers Party has all but collapsed, leaving Allinson’s base, the non-Labour left, weaker than at any time in living memory. Perhaps McCluskey’s vacillations over Corbyn and migration will give him a way in to the campaign? If so he needs to get his act together, and soon.

Len McCluskey to the members: shut up and give me your money

Len McCluskey has sent a letter round the membership and it’s message is clear: if you want to discuss how the union spends its money – on Len – then you are part of the enemy. It is simply not acceptable.

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How the union spends its members money on its leaders is absolutely a legitimate issue in this election and when Len McCluskey attempts to describe any such debate as “propaganda, lies and smears”, he is treating the membership with contempt.

Of course, Len is hiding behind the fact that these stories have mostly appeared in newspapers generally hostile to the union movement. But that is not a good enough excuse – after all it was such newspapers – the Daily Telegraph and the News of the World – that were crucial in exposing the Communist-inspired ballot rigging in the ETU in the 1960s. Shooting the messenger is not an antidote to truth.

So, here are some of the facts that Len McCluskey is so anxious that we do not discuss. The allegation is not that he is breaking the law or anything similar – but that our money is not being used well.

Len McCluskey owns a flat on Borough High Street in central London. He bought it for £695,500 in February 2016. And £417,000 (60%) of that came from members of Unite.

Unite say this is a good use of members’ money because it represents an “equity share” – in effect Unite should get back 60% of the capital value of the property.

But, actually, unless Len is paying rent on that 60% of the property it represents anything but good value – it is, in fact, an enormous interest-free loan to Len McCluskey.

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And – according to Zoopla – the property could be rented out for £2100 a month, so Len ought to be paying members of Unite £1260 a month for their share of the property. If he is not – and there is no evidence to suggest he is – then that’s effectively another £25,000 on his salary before tax.

If we are not allowed to discuss what our union’s leader is being paid – out of our money – what are we allowed to discuss?

Can Len McCluskey be beaten?

Gerard Coyne’s campaign certainly seem to think so, if a briefing that found its way into the hands of the Independent is any guide.

Their aim is to drive up turnout and to use what they see as the excesses of Len McCluskey’s leadership to public view as the key weapon in doing that.

So, do the numbers stack up?

I’ve crunched some of this and I think the answer is yes. But only if the turnout rises.

Here’s my thinking.

Last time round Len McCluskey polled 144,570 votes and left challenger Jerry Hicks got 79,819 – a turnout of 15.2%.

The turnout figures would suggest about 1.5 million votes being at stake – which is interesting given the union’s official annual return indicated they had home addresses for just over 1.3 million members, but anyway … assuming (correctly, I think) that the number of members has been broadly stable – here’s my model, looking only at McCluskey, Allinson (the left’s candidate) and Coyne.

Scenario 1: Turnout remains steady and one-third of Len McCluskey’s vote (which, we must remember drew from all of the right and centre as well as the left last time) goes to Gerard Coyne –

  • McCluskey 96,800
  • Allinson 79,800
  • Coyne 48,200

Here McCluskey gets back reasonably comfortably, though his majority is way down.

Scenario 2: As above but now two-fifths of McCluskey’s vote goes to Coyne –

  • McCluskey 86,700
  • Allinson 79,800
  • Coyne 57,900

We can see from these that McCluskey looks pretty safe if there is no change in turnout – but that alters radically if turnout starts to rise.

Scenario 3: As with (1) above, but now turnout rises to 18% – i.e., another 45,000 people vote. These go 80% for Coyne, 15% for McCluskey and 5% for Allinson.

  • McCluskey: 103,600
  • Allinson: 82,000
  • Coyne: 84,200

Now it’s getting close but McCluskey still clings on.

Scenario 4: As with (3) but now turnout is 20%, so an additional 75,000 voters have taken part.

  • McCluskey: 108,000
  • Allinson: 83,600
  • Coyne: 108,200

And the world has turned upside down. Now there are a lot of assumptions in here, but one thing is plain – Gerard Coyne’s campaign are spot on when they say a rising turnout puts victory in their reach.

[Please note: before I had the figures slightly wrong, I’ve corrected them now – they didn’t change the eventual result – but the correct figures show just how close this is.]

The tipping point in terms of share is very close though – if McCluskey’s campaign can grab more of the raised turnout then they could still win. But that is also their greatest dilemma: it’s an open secret that Unite specialise in keeping turnout in internal elections low so that the machine can have more predictable outcomes. Coyne’s campaign is upsetting that long-term calculation and I would not be surprised if there is a fierce debate going on inside McCluskey’s team about whether to rely on a low turnout and so face the prospect of getting steamrollered by Coyne if that fails or to risk everything in battling for votes in a higher profile election where they can rely on incumbency to take them over the line.

Update: the last 24 hours have seen the launch of a Twitter account with the explicit aim of smearing Gerard Coyne. Quickly followed by senior staff in Jeremy Corbyn’s office, the account owners then seemed to go into a panic when all this was highlighted online – deleting all their previous tweets. A sign of strategic malaise in the McCluskey camp?

Well, that escalated quickly

I heard today that the internal battle in Unite has already got started, and it does not look like it is going to be very polite. A leaflet (pictured) has been circulated to Unite branch secretaries attacking Len for his lifestyle and behaviour – I haven’t seen it, but a friend has sent me a picture of one side of it – and you can see it is pretty harsh. It doesn’t seem to endorse any other candidate but I’m told it was postmarked from Glasgow.

It hasn’t been a great start for Len’s campaign: not least because he is facing at least one serious challenger from the left: and Len being forced to compete about who is most dedicated to the cause of Jeremy Corbyn is just about the best possible outcome for Gerard Coyne’s campaign.

Though Len will be pleased to have won the support of the Morning Star – even if not everyone will impressed by an endorsement from the newspaper that recently talked of the “liberation” of Aleppo.

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But the left was always strong in the four (and now with UCATT five) major unions that form Unite’s bedrock, so it would have been a monumental miscalculation for Len to think he could simply rely on the far left to roll over for his candidacy.

Yet Len seems to have made more than one miscalculation – because the overall impression is that he expected Gerard Coyne to be frightened off running when, in fact, Gerard was first out of the blocks when the election was called.

Trade unions must matter in Britain

What’s it all about…

The days of regular beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street for trade union leaders are long gone, but the unions themselves should still be vitally important to British civil society. No one else brings together millions of working people in organisations they control to look after their own interests on their own terms.

And with the potential for huge economic change ahead, from Brexit to much more intensive use of technology as robots and AI start to move into spaces we previously thought were protected by an unreproducible human intelligence, my suspicion is that we may need our trade unions more than ever before.

“The people who gave you the weekend,” is how American labor unions justify their continued relevance to the United States and, of course, no one wants to work all the time. But the big worry for the years to come could be that more and more of us are pushed towards a casualised “gig” economy at the beck and call of over-powerful employers. Too much leisure could turn out to be as bad for us as too much work.

But unions have a big job to do if they are to stay relevant. Founded in the 19th century and shaped in the 20th, they are in danger of looking as old fashioned as a manual typewriter or a fax machine.

Too often unions get in the news for messing about with London politics while members in the regions see their pay and conditions eroded. That contrast is not one that engenders confidence.

My union, Unite, is the biggest in the country and is about to have an election for its leader – the general secretary. The incumbent, Len McCluskey, is hoping to be re-elected and serve on into his 70s. He’s facing a tough challenge though, especially from Gerard Coyne, the West Midlands regional secretary who is close to twenty years his junior.

This blog, I hope, will report on how that contest develops. Buckle up.