Thursday, 10 June 2021

Defeating Gerard Coyne

The battle for the control of Unite is of strategic importance to the entire labour movement. Even the Labour right, who in ordinary times show scant interest in trade union matters, have blundered in mob-handed to support their man. It's gratifying then to see Gerard Coyne win the least nominations. But what always matters is weight of numbers in the actual ballot. In 2017, under different circumstances, Len McCluskey won with 57,067 votes, with Coyne coming close on 53,544, and the ultra left candidature of Ian Allison mustering 17,143 votes. This was despite Len winning 10 times the branch nominations of his right wing rival. Because the General Secretaryship is contested under First Past the Post, if all four candidates go through to the membership it's reasonable to expect the left vote will be split three ways, allowing Coyne to drive through the middle. As we have seen in so many trade union elections before.

The question before the membership then is what sort of union should Unite be? Seemingly learning his lesson from the absurd campaign of four years ago, Coyne has so far steered clear of personal attacks and hysterical talking points. That's what the friendly rightwingers in the PLP are for. Instead, his website is economism, economism, economism. The six pledges from his manifesto repositions Unite as a service union there to help with reskilling, advice, and more full-timers to support the reps. Nothing about organising, nothing about struggle. Also of interest is a promised "democracy commission" to make the union "less divided" (code for curtailing Unite Community), and an investigation into the union's £98m Birmingham hotel. Save the size and the monies involved, Coyne's platform is no different in kind to election addresses ambitious randoms put together when pitching for a students' union post. It is a step back to the "new realism" of the post-Thatcher period.

And it might work. Trade unionism is political because it challenges management's right to manage, but because it's not immediately, spontaneously big P Politics, the fiction politics and economics are separate is relatively easy to maintain. This is something Coyne understands too well with his promising "an end to messing about in Westminster politics." It's not difficult to think this through. If a workplace branch is fighting to protect existing conditions or is complaining about health and safety, it's not obvious why Unite should be issuing warnings to Keir Starmer about ongoing issues. Whisper it, some don't see virtue in handing the Labour Party any funds at all, a reality that had a mass expression in the past, but these days is more likely to resolve itself into an apolitical stance, cynical about all politicians. An attitude that would suit Coyne down to the ground.

Coyne could be on to something. Pushing the same shtick last time got him within touching distance of the top job, so why not now His success or failure on this occasion is not within his gift: it depends on what his opponents do. Steve Turner has met with the other two left candidates about hammering out a deal so only one goes forward, but no movement at this stage. Given the splash Howard Beckett has made on social media, most of his following are egging him on and basically declaring he should go before the membership regardless. A case, I'm sorry to say, that owes more to stanning and voluntarism than considered analysis and an appreciation of what defeat in Unite means for the left in the labour movement. While Steve Turner is said to be Keir Starmer's second preference, the question Howard's die hard support need to ask themselves is whether our people, from the precarious worker trying to organise their office or depot to branches under attack as bosses foist the costs of the Coronavirus crisis onto them can live with a right winger in the general secretary's chair. To pose the question should elicit the obvious answer.

Obviously there's some distance to go and Steve has rightly said a running commentary on the negotiations would be unhelpful. But there is wriggle room among all three candidates to offer a common programme, and so no reason why politically a compromise cannot be reached. Howard is offering an explicitly politicised trade unionism, Sharon Graham talks tough on workplace organisation and equalities - especially important as trans people are under sustained attack - and Steve has a comprehensive list of priorities for building the union. On all of these issues, Coyne pales. His is a programme for locking the union in a state of quiescent decline and despite what he says, subordinate to the dismal schemes of his parliamentary allies.

As a former T+G shop steward and current member of Unite, politically Howard's pitch strikes me as the most attractive. But practically, what is his chance of winning if there is no unity candidate? Contrary to what some might think, even though the union is growing again it is not being overwhelmed by the newly politicised. The new layers are largely a reaction, a move into the union from workers whose immediate thoughts are clouded by the need for certainty and protection as the economy churns with uncertainty and business collapse. There was no Corbynist flooding of the unions, unfortunately. If Howard emerges as the unity candidate, then fine. The left should back him. But if not, then there is a duty, yes, a duty for leftwingers and socialists to support the best placed candidate to keep the union out of the death grip of the right. And that, at the moment, is the man with the most nominations, including the backing of the largest branches. Steve Turner, in other words.

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Phil said...

I'm just glad I'm not a member of Unite! I'd find it really difficult to vote for Turner against Beckett, and I'm afraid Beckett will be tempted to capitalise on the number of people who feel the same. But you're right, of course - if there are multiple left candidates, Coyne will win.

mary said...

My vote goes to Howard Beckett, As a unite member I will not accept a right-winger winning, & if that happens I will not support unite or Labour again,

Phil said...

Steve Turner is not a rightwinger, and neither is Sharon Graham. Gerard Coyne is. Please try reflecting on what's best for the wider movement.

Anonymous said...

Question: you conclude that '...a duty for leftwingers and socialists to support the best placed candidate to keep the union out of the death grip of the right. And that, at the moment, is the man with the most nominations, including the backing of the largest branches. Steve Turner, in other words.'

So... you're saying:
- we need a Left candidate.
- you don't care who, it should simply be the best placed to win.
- you base your conclusion that Turner is the best placed to win and Beckett (and Graham) should stand aside on the no. of Branch nominations Turner has.

So, my question is: if Branch nominations really did translate into member votes (thus annointing Turner as the Chosen One) how has Coyne any chance of winning?

Could the answer be that Branch noms mean **** all to members? In which case, who cares if Turner's got them? Why doesn't he step aside in favour of someone who seems to have the popular vote wherever I look: Beckett?

Anonymous said...

And *how* exactly does Beckett "have the popular vote wherever I look"? Because he mindlessly s***posts non stop on Twitter??