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1 March 2017

Is the Unite general secretary election over already?

Len McCluskey has won 1,185 nominations to Gerard Coyne's 187. But the challenger's campaign insist they "will win".

By George Eaton

Having concluded that there is little purpose in launching another challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader’s opponents have been pinning their hopes on Gerard Coyne. Unite’s West Midlands head is challenging Len McCluskey to become the super-union’s general secretary. The election of Coyne as leader of the party’s biggest donor and biggest affiliate would be a triumph for the Labour rebels. Unite’s voting strength at the party’s conference and on its NEC would help thwart proposed rule changes (such as a reduction in the leadership nomination threshold). While the support of McCluskey has helped to keep Corbyn in place, the opposition of Coyne could help to dislodge him.

The Unite challenger’s supporters hoped that Corbyn’s stances on defence, fracking and pharmaceuticals (industries where Unite is heavily represented) would energise his bid. But the early signs are not encouraging for Coyne. McCluskey (whose influence is such that some MPs call him “the real Labour leader”) has been nominated by 1,185 branches, while Coyne won just 187 (left-wing challenger Ian Allison secured 76). The nominations have no official weight in the contest but are a useful, if not foolproof, indicator.

McCluskey’s campaign has proudly declared that he has won the largest number of nominations ever, including defence workers at the Faslane and Coulport naval bases in Scotland and Barrow shipyards in Cumbria (despite Corbyn’s opposition to Trident). McCluskey described the result as “a rejection of the cynical approach of one opponent [Coyne], which is not to offer a positive vision for our union but to taint it with smears and do the bidding of meddlers from outside our union who would rather destroy Unite than see it provide strength and hope for working people.”

But unbowed by this, Coyne’s campaign has insisted that he “will win” (voting opens on 27 March and closes on 19 April). They note that in the 2002 Amicus election (the union which merged with the TGWU to form Unite), Derek Simpson won despite recieving 93 nominations to Ken Jackson’s 352. “Len McCluskey is a machine politician, elected by one in ten Unite members on a low turnout,” said a Coyne spokesman. “Full-time Unite officials were under heavy pressure during the nomination period to deliver for McCluskey.

“Gerard Coyne is appealing to the mass of Unite members who are not part of the McCluskey machine. He is very pleased to have received nominations from every region of the UK, despite the machine, and he will win.”

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As Coyne’s campaign suggests, his chances of an upset depend on significantly increasing turnout in the election (which was just 15.2 per cent in 2013). Should thousands more of Unite’s 1.4 million members vote (rather than merely its left-wing core), the contest could be closer than anticipated. But Corbyn’s opponents, who have eagerly anticipated the union election since 2015, would be wise to devise a plan B.