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.

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?