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.


Len’s woman problem

Tomorrow, at 5pm British time, Donald Trump is sworn in as President of the United States. He has got there despite the well-documented and extensive stories of his record of sexual assault and harassment.

It isn’t difficult to believe he’ll import this culture into the very heart of the US government – especially as he keeps reminding us of his wide ranging legal privileges as President.

No one is accusing Len McCluskey of sexual harassment or of sexual assault. But he certainly has presided over a culture inside Unite that is actively hostile to its women staff and where “almost 40% of women [who worked for Unite] felt frightened at work”.

We know this because it has all been revealed in an internal report that was today leaked by Ian Allinson, the left candidate for General Secretary of Unite.

There are good reasons why this report was not previously in the public domain, but there are no good reasons to pretend, as a bunch of Len’s supporters have in their response to the leak that everything is being addressed and that there is nothing to see here.

And there is absolutely no reason to believe, as Len plainly does, that the real story here is not the content of its report but the manner in which it reached the public domain.

One thing is plain from the response – issued within an hour of Ian Allinson publishing the report – and that is that Len’s team knew this was coming and prepared their response with much greater thoroughness than they did their response to the reports contents.

Nothing is going to be allowed to stand in the way of Len winning his third term as far as those people are concerned.

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:


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:

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.