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.