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.

The buck stops with Len McCluskey

Len McCluskey has had a pretty bad 10 days.

It started with Gerard Coyne making a pointed attack on McCluskey’s use of a very large amount of Unite members’ funds to get himself set up living rent and mortgage free in the very centre of one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Borough High Street

It wasn’t just that the sum lent to buy the property – £417,300 – was huge and well beyond what any average Unite member could expect to borrow never mind get for free, it was also the lousy service he was done by the union in defending this perk.

Instead of simply stating the truth – that the top officials of Unite have come to expect rich property pickings as of right – the union tried all sorts of fanciful ways to justify it: including that it was to help Len move to London (something he did a quarter of a century ago) and that this represented an investment by the union.

Now, it is, I am sure, true that if the property rises in value Unite will get a share of the increased value back. But that of itself hardly constitutes a good use of union money. Leaving aside whether an organisation that seeks to serve the interests of working people should be speculating in property to begin with – because the “Marxists” supposedly running Unite have apparently decided that it is in the interests of the working class to drive up property prices rather than build more homes – then any decent property investor would know that rent should be being paid. And plainly none is – because there is only one owner of the property – Len McCluskey.

But the property story, bad though it was, was only the entree. Much worse was to come with the loss of what had once been a safe Labour seat in Copeland to the Tories last Thursday.

That loss was, in many people’s view, directly attributable to the long-held and widely-expressed antipathy of Jeremy Corbyn to nuclear power. Attempts by Emily Thornberry to label reports of Corbyn’s hostility to nuclear as “fake news” only serve to show the desperate state the Labour Party now finds itself in.

And that is where Len comes in – because Len McCluskey is, without doubt, the most important non-parliamentary supporter of Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn’s election and re-election campaign were essentially funded by Unite: in fact the re-election campaign of last summer was run out of Unite’s offices.

All of this despite Corbyn’s hostility not just to civil nuclear, but also to Trident renewal and Heathrow expansion – all things strongly supported by Unite’s membership and on which many thousands of Unite members depend upon for their current and future employment.

Up to now, McCluskey has loved all of this and the opportunities it has given him to look like a big figure in public life. It is this political game playing, rather than having political opinions, which has irked so many of his opponents, but that has not bothered him so long as he was ahead in the game.

But even Len knows which way the wind is blowing amongst working class voters. He knows that a public endorsement of Corbyn would now be electoral poison for him in Unite – especially as the issue of his lavish member-funded lifestyle and big donations to Corbyn are starting to be linked.

So his team are claiming he’s too busy to speak about Corbyn and whining and whinging about the fact that Gerard Coyne is. Having once quite literally encouraged journalists to portray him as the king-maker in Labour, McCluskey now protests that it is his opponents who talk about Labour while he gets on with what they call the “day job”: was he on holiday when he posed with his chess set before? I doubt it.

There is no sign that Len has actually ditched his support for Corbyn. The fact that such rumours are swirling around only indicates a few of his more savvy supporters knows it suits him to have a bit of ambiguity out there with the chattering classes.

In fact Len probably cannot afford to dump Corbyn any more than he can be seen to back him. McCluskey’s campaign is dependent on support from a layer of activists who are still very likely to be fully signed up to the Corbyn project. If they think Len is going to stab Corbyn in the back they may well walk away, leaving the incumbent general secretary totally reliant what he can twist out of the Unite machine to get himself re-elected.

But can he really get through another month of not answering questions about Corbyn? He looks like he is going to try.

In fact Len’s team will probably now try their very hardest to shut the election down. He’ll refuse to do any broadcast interviews (his press officer already appears to live in Spain, so it’s not hard to ‘go dark’) and try to get by by whipping up industrial stories and saying he is too focussed on them to even contemplate answering anything else.

The fact that Unite members might reasonably expect their general secretary to be able to deal with more than one issue at once – especially when all the money he is getting is considered – is something McCluskey hopes will never get raised.

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.

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.

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.