Len McCluskey has been re-elected general secretary of the Unite union, it was announced on Friday.
Many socialists breathed sighs of relief as the Labour right’s attempt to unseat a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn fell short. But the narrower than expected result also revealed a worrying level of disaffection inside one of Britain’s largest trade unions.
McCluskey won 59,067 votes, right wing senior official Gerard Coyne got 53,544 and rank and file socialist Ian Allinson won 17,143.
Coyne’s defeat is welcome. He called for Unite to cosy up to bosses and for Labour to cut immigration. By contrast McCluskey has supported Stand up to Racism and the People’s Assembly. Allinson has led strikes in his workplace and was the only candidate to defend freedom of movement for EU migrants.
Almost 100,000 fewer votes were cast than in the previous election in 2013. This reflected a decline in both membership and turnout common to much of the trade union movement. The winner in 2017’s election took fewer votes than 2013’s runner up, Jerry Hicks, who got 79,819.
Coyne benefitted from the full support of the right wing media—going as far as writing several times in the hated Sun newspaper. And he had the backing of much of the Labour machine, including allegedly inappropriate access to its membership data.
McCluskey had the support of virtually the whole union bureaucracy and other advantages of already holding the office. Large sections of the left argue that it was urgent to support him.
Yet neither managed to inspire Unite members to come out and vote in large numbers.
McCluskey’s warnings about Coyne’s right wing agenda hit home for some. For others so did Coyne’s hypocritical attacks on McCluskey for enjoying the perks of his job while neglecting members.
The idea that the election would become a “referendum on Corbyn” was damaged by McCluskey’s increasing hedging over how long he would continue to support Corbyn.
Allinson’s campaign did well with much fewer resources and the backing only of activists and socialist groups, including the Socialist Workers Party.
In a statement he said, “We put important arguments into the union, made it harder for Coyne to drag the debate to the right, prevented him hoovering up all discontent, showed that it was possible to run a clean campaign, and connected up many members who want to see a stronger union.”
Many Unite members have suffered the brunt of austerity and bosses’ attacks without getting a lead to fight back.
Challenges to some of McCluskey’s nominations have exposed how some Unite branches are inactive or disorganised.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is another inspiring and powerful side to Unite, as seen most recently in magnificent strikes by British Airways crew and BMW factory workers.
Strikes by Unite at Fawley oil refinery last year won pay parity for migrants, and its campaigning around the Sports Direct warehouse in Derbyshire piled pressure on the firm.
But this has been neglected, creating a gap for the right to exploit, and a danger that it could take control of the union once McCluskey steps down.
Some on the left accused Allinson of “splitting” the “left vote”, blaming him for nearly letting Coyne in. This reveals a dangerous complacency. It’s McCluskey who gave Coyne a chance by calling an unnecessary snap election.
And the declining turnout shows there is no static “left vote” to take for granted. Some of Allinson’s votes are as likely to have been won away from frustrated members who would otherwise have voted for Coyne or not voted at all.
His candidacy helped stop the issues up for debate being narrowed just to Unite’s relationship with the Labour Party.
More of this, not less, is needed across the union movement to reverse its drift into passivity.
Reballots have opened the way to bigger struggle