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.
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?
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.
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:
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…
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 has sent a letter round the membership and it’s message is clear: if you want to discuss how the union spends its money – on Len – then you are part of the enemy. It is simply not acceptable.
How the union spends its members money on its leaders is absolutely a legitimate issue in this election and when Len McCluskey attempts to describe any such debate as “propaganda, lies and smears”, he is treating the membership with contempt.
Of course, Len is hiding behind the fact that these stories have mostly appeared in newspapers generally hostile to the union movement. But that is not a good enough excuse – after all it was such newspapers – the Daily Telegraph and the News of the World – that were crucial in exposing the Communist-inspired ballot rigging in the ETU in the 1960s. Shooting the messenger is not an antidote to truth.
So, here are some of the facts that Len McCluskey is so anxious that we do not discuss. The allegation is not that he is breaking the law or anything similar – but that our money is not being used well.
Len McCluskey owns a flat on Borough High Street in central London. He bought it for £695,500 in February 2016. And £417,000 (60%) of that came from members of Unite.
Unite say this is a good use of members’ money because it represents an “equity share” – in effect Unite should get back 60% of the capital value of the property.
But, actually, unless Len is paying rent on that 60% of the property it represents anything but good value – it is, in fact, an enormous interest-free loan to Len McCluskey.
And – according to Zoopla – the property could be rented out for £2100 a month, so Len ought to be paying members of Unite £1260 a month for their share of the property. If he is not – and there is no evidence to suggest he is – then that’s effectively another £25,000 on his salary before tax.
If we are not allowed to discuss what our union’s leader is being paid – out of our money – what are we allowed to discuss?
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.
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.
The days of regular beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street for trade union leaders are long gone, but the unions themselves should still be vitally important to British civil society. No one else brings together millions of working people in organisations they control to look after their own interests on their own terms.
And with the potential for huge economic change ahead, from Brexit to much more intensive use of technology as robots and AI start to move into spaces we previously thought were protected by an unreproducible human intelligence, my suspicion is that we may need our trade unions more than ever before.
“The people who gave you the weekend,” is how American labor unions justify their continued relevance to the United States and, of course, no one wants to work all the time. But the big worry for the years to come could be that more and more of us are pushed towards a casualised “gig” economy at the beck and call of over-powerful employers. Too much leisure could turn out to be as bad for us as too much work.
But unions have a big job to do if they are to stay relevant. Founded in the 19th century and shaped in the 20th, they are in danger of looking as old fashioned as a manual typewriter or a fax machine.
Too often unions get in the news for messing about with London politics while members in the regions see their pay and conditions eroded. That contrast is not one that engenders confidence.
My union, Unite, is the biggest in the country and is about to have an election for its leader – the general secretary. The incumbent, Len McCluskey, is hoping to be re-elected and serve on into his 70s. He’s facing a tough challenge though, especially from Gerard Coyne, the West Midlands regional secretary who is close to twenty years his junior.
This blog, I hope, will report on how that contest develops. Buckle up.