On the day that counting began in the Unite general secretary election, Gerard Coyne, Len McCluskey’s challenger, has been suspended from his post. Coyne, who was West Midlands regional secretary, was given no reason for the action. Early returns are said by sources to show the “old right” candidate running ahead of the pro-Corbyn McCluskey by 46 points to 44. As the country’s biggest trade union, with 1.4 million members, and Labour’s biggest donor, control of Unite is crucial to the party’s internal dynamics.
Last year, Coyne was subject to disciplinary action after addressing a gathering organised by the anti-Corbyn Labour for the Common Good group. He was told that his speech to MPs including Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt was inappropriate “given the sensitivity within the Labour Party at the moment with the constant attacks on the leadership.”
McCluskey, a former Militant supporter, appeared to have a comfortable lead over Coyne after being nominated by 1,185 Unite branches to his rival’s 187. But Coyne’s team maintained that he would win, recalling that in the 2002 Amicus election (the union which merged with the TGWU to form Unite), Derek Simpson won despite receiving 93 nominations to Ken Jackson’s 352. “Len McCluskey is a machine politician, elected by one in ten Unite members on a low turnout,” a Coyne spokesman said then. “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.”
Coyne has sought to appeal to members alienated by Corbyn’s stances on stances on defence, fracking and pharmaceuticals (industries where Unite is heavily represented). His team have long hoped to defeat McCluskey by increasing turnout (which stood at just 15.2 per cent in 2013) beyond the union’s left-wing core. But though just 14 per cent of Unite members are said to have voted, Coyne supporters are hopeful of victory. “It’s the Corbyn effect,” a Labour aide said of McCluskey’s potential defeat. The election result is due to be announced on 28 April.