The day when nothing much changed

Once upon a time there used to be a corps of “labour” or “industrial” correspondents on Fleet Street, a group men (and they were almost always men – though with some exceptions), whose job it was to stand outside ACAS or Congress House or the Belgravia offices of various nationalised corporations and report on the progress or otherwise of talks to settle industrial disputes.

They were hacks who knew the labour movement inside out and in one or two cases were fully locked into the culture that came with it: it was as though they were as much part of the union movement as reporters on it.

But they are all gone now: some became transport correspondents – the importance of the unions in public transport gave them an edge – others, like the BBC’s legendary Nicholas Jones and the Mirror’s Paul Routledge and Kevin Maguire, went straight to political reporting. By now many (like Jones) have retired while others have left the industrial beat long behind them.

All of this has been thrown into sharp relief today by the rather odd way that some political correspondents decided to report the story of Unite general secretary nominations. The claim of the McCluskey camp that his strong lead in the nominations race means he’s a shoo-in for the election itself was given huge, and undeserved, credence.

Of course, if that were even half true McCluskey would by now be taking a very different approach to the election itself: for instance, he would not so desperate to avoid commenting on Jeremy Corbyn by hiding behind claims that he is just too focused on industrial matters that he’d lose his temper on camera, as he did yesterday.

Some of the journalists, initially at least, got their basic facts wrong. There are approximately 3000 branches in Unite and so reports that McCluskey’s 1185 nominations represents 80% support were way off beam. A bit of basic fact checking would not have gone amiss.

Nominations are the province of activists. In the past that would have meant they were a pretty good guide to the eventual result – though even then that can go wrong. Sir Ken Jackson had a massive lead in nominations for the leadership of Amicus in 2002 and lost. Then (as now) the union machine had delivered the nominations but could not bring the votes in. It is also worth remembering that Sir Ken’s age was a big factor in his loss – members thought he was pushing his luck running for another term: that must haunt McCluskey who wants to stay in post until he is 71.

In a ‘normal’ union election, with turnouts like the dismal 15% Unite managed last time, activists set the tone. But Gerard Coyne’s campaign have already very publicly declared that a ‘normal’ election is not what they are after. They acknowledge that it will be difficult if not impossible for them to win if turnout stays low. So they are playing a different game – hence the very high profile use of the media in this campaign to highlight questions about McCluskey’s use of members’ money to make a property purchase and to finance Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign.

In such an election a meeting of five people – the minimum required to make a nomination – is a very poor guide to the outcome. They matter even less when we consider just how many branches were formed or revived for the express purpose of making a nomination. By all accounts most of Unite’s organisers have been working on this and this alone for the last six weeks.

The nomination figures have changed nothing very much, except perhaps to show how strong McCluskey’s grip on the Unite machine is. The strategic tasks facing the campaigns remain unchanged: McCluskey needs to stir up apathy and Coyne needs to get people to use their ballots.

Len McCluskey: still trying, still losing

Len McCluskey is still losing this election – and here’s why.

1. He’s thrown everything at this but is still not making much of an impact. McCluskey’s campaign tactics are based on a re-run of the last election when he used the union machine to beat far left challenger Jerry Hicks. So a huge effort has gone into nominations and union employees have had their arms twisted to say they support him. That has given him something of an aura of invincibility to the more casual observers, but it’s paper thin. Look at the turnout at his events: his team have now deleted the most embarrassing photographs – such as that of a few very obviously bored people in Sheffield, but even at his so-called activists’ rally in Liverpool – his home patch – the turnout looks like it was less than twenty (all credit to the photographer for making the best of it – but just count). There is no member enthusiasm for McCluskey.

2. He’s not convinced the left. Thirty-two years ago Len McCluskey was the only senior union official to defend the Militant Tendency controlled City Council when it pursued policies that ended in an attempt to make all 30,000 council employees redundant. While the other unions fought back – rejecting the Militant’s plans and even blacking the transport of the redundancy notices, Len praised the council and offered no resistance. The result today is that the Militant’s successor organisation – the Socialist Party/TUSC – is right behind McCluskey and quick to denounce Ian Allinson – the “Grassroots Left” candidate. But Allinson is still picking up nominations as a genuine left challenger to the union’s establishment.

3. This will be an election with greater media interest than ever. Gerard Coyne says he’s not interested in “Westminster power games” – what that really means is that he’s not interested in being the pit prop that stops the crumbling of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. And that makes this an election the media are keen to report. And the more reporting there is, the higher the turnout will be – and that is bad for McCluskey.

4. People just don’t like Len McCluskey. Ask any group of ordinary people and it’s pretty plain – there are not many fans of McCluskey out there. It’s true that there is a constituency for loud-mouthed blow-hards, but McCluskey has all of that already. The more exposed he becomes, the more he motivates people to vote against him.

5. Coyne (and Allinson) have the most powerful slogan on their side. There are essentially two types of election – one where “time for change” is the big idea and one where “more of the same” is the spirit of the age. Nobody thinks “more of the same” is a strong proposition this time, but it is all that Len McCluskey has. The more this is about “new ideas versus the incumbent leader”, the more confident we can all be that Len McCluskey is heading for well-deserved retirement.

How to suppress turnout

The election for Unite General Secretary is now generating an unprecedented amount of coverage for an internal trade union contest.

Gerard Coyne launched his manifesto today:

And managed to get positive coverage from journalists working for both left-wing and right-wing newspapers:

All of this is very bad news for Len McCluskey – because Len McCluskey needs one thing not to happen in the forthcoming Unite General Secretary election – and that is for you and other Unite members to vote. On turnout: the lower, the better, as far as Len is concerned.

And his supporters are doing their very best to stir up apathy and keep the turnout down.

This has just been posted on the website of the Housing Workers branch of Unite:

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You can search in vain for anything that suggests that this is not an election to the Supreme Soviet with only one candidate – Good Old Uncle Len – standing. There are no links to any of the other candidates’ websites or even a reference to their existence. It’s an attempt at a stitch-up, pure and simple.

Trade unions are democratic organisations but when branch officers behave in this way you begin to wonder how serious some are about trade unions’ democratic values and heritage.

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:

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?