Trade union elections are about labour politics – the condition and treatment of the workers represented by the trade union in question – not Labour politics. But elections in Labour’s affiliated trade unions have significant consequences for the inner life of the party, because the unions play a crucial role in both the development of the party’s manifesto and the selection of candidates.
The reality, however, is that the looming Unite general secretary election will, in common with most other trade union elections, be fought on competing platforms of “things have never been better, stay the course” and “let’s do more for our members, it’s time for change”. (Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, and probably the most influential trade union leader during the Corbyn era, was elected not because of a big argument about the relationship between the CWU and Labour but because of the credibility he had won thanks to his activity on the industrial side.)
The last Unite general secretary election in 2017, in which McCluskey narrowly defeated Gerard Coyne (by 45.5 per cent to 41.3 per cent), was no different. The biggest single factor in McCluskey’s favour was that the union had recently completed a favourable negotiation with Jaguar Land Rover: a poor backdrop for a challenger whose main message was that the union was too focused on Labour politics and not enough on labour politics. Integral to that good news story? Steve Turner, Unite’s assistant general secretary, who is now in the running for the top job himself. Like Ward in 2015, he starts with a strong record to campaign on.
But the overall British labour market may make the summer of 2021 a cold environment for anyone running on an “it’s morning in Unite” message, and long-running stories about alleged overspending in Unite provide a more favourable set of conditions for Coyne, who is running again. Added to that, one reason Coyne came so close to winning last time was the presence of an effective left-wing campaign by Ian Allison, who split the left vote. (Unite uses first-past-the-post for its elections.)
That Howard Beckett, another close McCluskey ally, is also running means that Coyne may be better-placed to win this time than in 2017. The flip side is that Beckett is a serious candidate in his own right: and Coyne’s supporters may find that he goes from almost winning thanks to the third-placed candidate to becoming the spoiler himself. Add to that a tough path to the ballot for all candidates (who each require 174 branch nominations) and the contest remains up in the air and one in which, despite the major consequences for Labour politics, labour politics will be the deciding factor.