Saturday, 17 December 2016

Unite Election: Who is Ian Allinson?

Here's another election we can look forward to: the position of General Secretary in my union, Unite. The incumbent, Len McCluskey has announced his intention to stand down next year, effectively calling a by-election. If he's victorious, it will allow him to serve out a full term before he heads off into retirement some time after the next general election. His declared opponent is Gerard Coyne, secretary of Unite's West Midlands region. Widely seen as the candidate of the union's right, in his opinion the union should concentrate on members' issues and not internal Labour Party struggles. I'm sure that bold aspiration raised an eyebrow among Unite and Labour watchers. Anyway, the battle was set and the combat for Unite's soul was about to begin. Then, much to everyone's surprise, a third contender charged onto the field.

Ian Allinson is Fujitsu's Unite convenor in Manchester, and has been involved in Unite and its forerunners for 25 years. He also has a blog, which has chronicled his union activities since 2007. Whereas Len and Gerard are both apparatus men, Ian can make a plausible claim for being the closest to union members. And, of course, he knows it. His challenge is framed in terms of a "grass-roots socialist challenge" to the union establishment. A Coyne-led union would be a backwards step, while he suggests Len's leadership is a vote for an unacceptable status quo. For Ian, despite the militant-sounding rhetoric coming from the general secretary, this covers for a lack of effective leadership against cuts and job losses affecting Unite members.

While there might be some merit in these criticisms, it should be worth noting that Ian's political background is our friends the Socialist Workers Party. Though, to his credit, he quit as the SWP imploded over that cover up and in the subsequent splits, it seems he's retained an association with the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century group. No, that's not the one that had a split over BDSM. Nor is this entirely a bolt from blue, at least where Ian's record is concerned. In 2013 he backed Jerry Hicks, ex of the SWP and then of Respect against Len McCluskey and, again, on pretty much the same grounds.

Why mount this challenge, especially as the Unite left control the union and now face a challenge from the right? Ian and his comrades have given the impacts of a split vote some thought and came to the conclusion that Gerard Coyne's challenge is not worth writing home about. Apparently, Unite members are "better" than voting for him. That's not an entirely convincing analysis, it has to be said. Polling commissioned by Lord Ashcroft three years ago found 42% of members were prepared to vote for bourgeois parties. In other words, while there might be little support for the old union right in the apparatus the basis for such exists in the wider membership. That membership, like the membership as a whole is largely passive.

And this is where Ian's analysis starts looking iffy. Turnout at the last general secretary was under 10%, which is a truly pitiful figure. It wouldn't take much for a well-organised campaign to tap into the Corbyn-scepticism widespread across the labour movement and unseat Len. Gerard might affect a disinterest in Labour Party matters, but Labour First and Progress are not as squeamish. They are signing up new members in support of his candidacy - indeed, there has been a spike in new recruits. Enough to swing an election? Probably not, but plenty of people have this year have learned the folly of complacency. The arguments for Jerry Hicks don't necessarily map on to arguments for Ian Allinson. Events, dear boy ...

The second problem Ian's candidacy is political. He appears to share a chief tenet of Trotskyism as handed down through the SWP, that workers are always spoiling for a fight and be up for the big face off with capital if it wasn't for the trade union leaders reining them in. As he has organised and led disputes, I can understand why Ian emphasises rank-and-file activity and workers' appetites for resistance, but his position, unfortunately, is atypical in the trade union movement. Most union members are not champing at the bit. They are not looking for a general who can lead them into battles they're, at the moment, unprepared for and unwilling to wage. Len and Gerard understand it - indeed, it's this conservatism of trade unions that allow their bureaucracies to operate largely in the absence of mass participation from below. The question is whether Ian's challenge would help shift this situation. I doubt it.


Igor Belanov said...

My union too.

It's a difficult question really. I think Unite is actually one of the better unions in its general activity as well as its political stance, but like most unions it is still very bureaucratic and the leadership takes the members largely for granted.

While it would be daft to start picking fights that unions have no chance of winning, I think a more militant position on work-related issues is essential if unions are to survive in the long-term. My partner's union, the GMB, already seems to resemble some kind of professional association, offering consumer discounts and legal services rather than any real help on workplace relations and conditions. My office is sadly lacking in union members, but I think one reason is that the unions don't seem to be offering much, and that when members have gone to the union for assistance, the union has been more likely to give excuses for not doing anything rather than bending over backwards to help. (It's not helped by the fact that about half-a-dozen different unions are operating within the hospital)

There are certainly societal problems that impact on unions, as people are often apathetic and quite willing to 'free-ride' on the benefits obtained through union action rather than join a union themselves, but I think some sort of challenge might be necessary to try and introduce more of a sense of collectivism and 'unity through strength'. If candidates for union offices were more willing to state their position and differentiate themselves from others then I'm sure more members would participate in the elections. I'm guilty of not voting in most union elections, but it is often a bit pointless when all you get in candidate statements are lists of previous union roles and nominating branches.

In short, I think a good shake-up is better than no change!

Boffy said...

"My office is sadly lacking in union members, but I think one reason is that the unions don't seem to be offering much, and that when members have gone to the union for assistance, the union has been more likely to give excuses for not doing anything rather than bending over backwards to help."

Herein lies the basis of the problem. The sentiment conveyed is that "the union" is some "thing" separate from the workers that form it. "The union" is somehow expected to come down from on high and resolve the problems of the workers without the workers themselves having to do anything or else to play a subordinate role in resolving their own problems. It is a sentiment that the trades union bureaucracy likes, because it justifies their status and function in society, as professional mediators and problem solvers, managers of the conflicts that periodically arise between the reconcilable interests of capital and wage labour; reconcilable because within a social democratic capitalism the interests of workers and of capital are the same, as Marx sets out in "Wage Labour and Capital", i.e. to bring about the fastest accumulation of capital, so as to create more jobs, and higher wages.

But, it also suits the Tories, who use this sentiment that "the union" is something other than a union of workers, to assert their collective interests via collective action, and instead to be able to talk about "the union" holding the country to ransom, disrupting the lives of workers and so on.

Only when workers themselves understand "the union" to be nothing more than themselves acting collectively will the problem of union membership and organisation be resolved, and the ability of the Tories to utilise the existing alienation against them, be ended. The same is true of situations where multiple unions operate within a workplace. In the 1960's, workers who did understand that the union was them, and not some alien "thing", not only undertook spontaneous action within plants across all of the multiplicity of unions, but they also formed combine committees etc. Its why the Bolsheviks had in their programme the formation of Factory Committees, which organised workers that belonged to different unions, and also those workers that belonged to no union.

Igor Belanov said...

@ Boffy


The problem is that many/most workers seem to see unions in a 'consumerist' manner, as in what unions can offer them, and assess it in a kind of cost-benefit analysis. The problem with that is that, as you suggest, even if they are not in the union they are still workers and thus objectively in need of the kind of solidarity a union could provide.

As far as your last paragraph is concerned, I don't really see the need for different unions at all, and if anything the existence of multiple unions is encouraging the kind of 'consumerist' attitude I described above. If the creation of one massive union representing all workers is beyond the realms of possibility, then industry-wide unions, particularly in institutions like the NHS, should be easily achievable.