For Ian Allinson, chair of the Unite union at IT services firm Fujitsu, the union needs a shake-up.
“There are lots of great things about Unite but despite that we’re seeing job losses, pay squeezes, cuts to our vital services and our rights being eroded,” he said.
Incumbent Len McCluskey has branded Unite a “fightback union”. But Allinson argues that “we keep missing opportunities” to put that into practice—from the NHS to the Trade Union Act.
Allinson has pledged to take only his current wage if elected, rather than McCluskey’s six-figure salary, and “to breathe life into the culture of grassroots activity”.
Some have argued that the left’s priority should be defending McCluskey, despite his flaws, to stop right winger Gerard Coyne.
Allinson disagrees. “Coyne would be a step backwards, but if he’s such a threat then McCluskey shouldn’t have forced the election in the first place,” he said
“Secondly, it’s wrong to assume there’s some fixed left vote that I’m splitting. Without a rank and file candidate fewer people would vote.
“A lot of people are unhappy with the status quo and are definitely not voting McCluskey. The danger is that some of that discontent could go to Coyne.
“It’s important to give it a left voice and a more constructive direction.”
The election is overshadowed by debates in the Labour Party—of which Unite is the biggest affiliate.
“McCluskey’s supporters are saying it’s a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn and that’s why you have to back him,” said Allinson.
“But publicly McCluskey’s very defensive about Corbyn.
“He’s also undermined Corbyn. He put pressure on Corbyn to allow a free vote on renewing Trident nuclear weapons rather than have a principled opposition.”
McCluskey has also played a key role in weakening Corbyn’s defence of freedom of movement.
“He’s succeeded in getting the union’s policy to be that the question was ‘difficult’ and that there needed to be a ‘debate’,” said Allinson.
“Since then he’s talked about wanting to restrict employers’ rights to hire people based on where they’re from.
"Our members are from all over the world. As soon as you give an inch to the idea that our problems are caused by immigration you’re dividing our members, dividing our class and undermining our own strength.”
Allinson argues for standing up to the scapegoating. “Not long ago we had Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and then general secretary Derek Simpson putting forward the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan,” he said.
"But last year strikers at the Fawley oil refinery fought and won equal pay for workers irrespective of their nationality.
“It’s possible to win people towards a principled opposition to racism.
“It’s not an easy argument and we won’t always win it, but you never win an argument by not having it.”
McCluskey and Coyne don’t want Allinson on the ballot paper, so the next few weeks are crucial.
“We need a genuine debate,” he said. “If that was reduced down to more of the same versus turning the clock back it would be a disaster for members.”
How it works
- Unite branches and workplaces can nominate either incumbent Len McCluskey, right winger Gerard Coyne or striking worker Ian Allinson
- A candidate needs at least 50 nominations
- Nominations close on 17 February
- The ballot starts on 27 March and ends on 19 April
- Details at ian4unite.org