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After McCluskey: who will win Unite’s crown?

In a new era of turmoil, the race to become general secretary of Labour’s biggest donor will prove pivotal.

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If it hadn’t been for coronavirus, Len McCluskey would have had his swansong by now. The 69-year-old had been expected to announce his retirement as general secretary of Unite at the trade union’s biennial policy conference, scheduled for this month in his home city of Liverpool, a stone’s throw from the docks where he became a shop steward half a century ago. The conference, now postponed until March 2021, should be McCluskey’s last before his term runs out by 2022 (he was first elected in 2010) – an emotional Merseyside farewell to the country’s highest-profile and, at least until the fall of Jeremy Corbyn, most politically influential union boss. 

But trade union politics abhors even a potential vacuum. On Saturday (18 July), hundreds of shop stewards and other activists from United Left (UL), the organised faction which has long dominated Britain’s second-biggest trade union, will log into a digital hustings to decide which of two Unite officials they want to succeed McCluskey in an election expected next year. The two other biggest unions, Unison, which endorsed Keir Starmer as Labour leader, and the GMB, which backed Lisa Nandy, will also be electing new general secretaries. But the election in Unite, Labour’s biggest donor, will be the most closely watched.

On past form, at least, UL’s backing is both a necessary and sufficient condition of victory in a Unite leadership election. Unsurprisingly, the two assistant general secretaries contesting Saturday’s hustings, Steve Turner and Howard Beckett, are both McCluskey allies. Turner, 57, was active in running McCluskey’s successful 2017 re-election campaign, while Beckett, 51, a solicitor, was brought into the union as its head in-house lawyer after he and his partners sold their Cheshire firm for a reported £2.69m in 2011. Both, like McCluskey, protested loudly when Starmer last month sacked left-wing shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was Unite’s chosen candidate to succeed Corbyn. 

[see also: Sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey was a mistake – but abandoning Corbynism would be a disaster]

On the face of it, Turner has much the stronger credentials to lead a large, mainly blue-collar trade union. Beckett, brought up in Belfast during the Troubles, is a successful lawyer (though he was fined £5,000 in 2009 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, when his firm – and several others – were found to have wrongly deducted a claims handling company’s fees from the payouts to sick and injured miners it represented). While Beckett stresses his negotiating experience during less than a decade working for Unite – and is embroiled in the current dispute with British Airways over job cuts – Turner has had a lifelong trade union career, rising steadily as a shop steward, regional and then national officer, since joining the Transport and General Workers’ Union on his first day as a London bus conductor aged 19.

But Beckett has conducted an unusually slick, if avowedly Corbynite, social media campaign. His leftist political support includes a lavish endorsement by Jennie Formby, the former Labour general secretary and Unite's former political director, and McCluskey’s ex-partner. He is also backed by the notably pro-Corbyn, anti-Starmer Skwawkbox website which, along with Unite under Beckett’s legal stewardship incurred £75,000 of damages – and more in potential costs – last December when they were sued for libel by the former Labour MP Anna Turley. Of the two candidates, Beckett has been a consistently strident critic of Starmer, with one tweet seemingly equating him with a right-wing Tory government: “Boris Johnson & Keir Starmer, I have a message for you both. We won’t stand idly by while you dump the pandemic fall out on the working class. We will fight back.” 

Beckett says that Starmer “needs to be held to account” on the ten pledges he made in his leadership campaign, adding: “Obviously, there are people who are trying to move him away from those pledges and trying to make the party more centrist and right wing. And I’m not one of those.”

[see also: Keir Starmer: The sensible radical]

Nor, for that matter, is Turner, who was in the entryist Militant faction of Labour until most of its members marched out to form what became the Socialist Party after the Kinnock purges in the mid-1980s. But Turner, who stayed in Labour, is markedly less publicly confrontational, saying that while “the jury’s out... I do not support in any way... a war of attrition inside our party which is being waged by some other candidates”. Though he has urged the Labour leadership to be “more forceful in exploiting challenges the Tories are leaving wide open for us”, he insists that “it’s our job in the Labour Party to win the argument not impose our will.” While “incredibly proud” of the manifesto on which Corbyn fought the 2019 election, Turner told me: “I didn’t support Keir but Keir won. I’m a democratic centralist. It’s our job to steer and guide and influence the leadership, not to have a public spat with the leader of the Labour Party.” 

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It may seem surprising to the uninitiated that, in a union of 1.2 million members, holding no doubt disparate views, such power is wielded by a group comprising no more than 0.1 per cent of that total and a relatively narrow ideological base. (By UL’s own account “most of us are on the left of the Labour Party, but others are in the Socialist Party, the Communist Party or in no party at all”. Among its international objectives are “defending the revolution and/or struggling left movements in Cuba, Venezuela or Brazil”.)  

But UL’s overlap with the Unite establishment is extensive. It includes many of the union’s senior officials (who can join but not hold office in UL) and has proved formidable at organising union elections. Though rejecting a series of complaints by the close runner-up in the 2017 election, Gerard Coyne, over the conduct of the McCluskey campaign, the assistant certification officer nevertheless acknowledged that there had not been a “level-playing field” between the candidates. One of several implicit reasons for this was UL’s unmatchable and long-standing access to a database of branch officers responsible for the election at ground level.  

So running against the union establishment has never been easy, and is even more difficult since a 2019 rule change designed to make it so. A candidate needs nominations from at least 5 per cent – or around 170 – of Unite’s branches instead of just 50 as before.  

Yet UL may not be the only game in town. For a start, Sharon Graham, the union’s organising director, has declared herself a candidate without participating in the United Left hustings. She not only has backing – including reportedly from some North West UL activists who could be no-shows on Saturday – but, according to Beckett, has the potential to split the vote on the union’s left and open up the electoral contest to other candidates on what he would call “the right” and others would designate as middle-of-the-road Labour. “The most important thing for our union is to have a unified left,” Beckett told me. “Without a unified left we risk a right-wing candidate winning the general secretaryship.”  

Beckett did not name names. But one obvious possibility is Coyne who, as the union’s West Midlands regional secretary (he was subsequently sacked as an official but remains a union member) lost the 2017 election to McCluskey by just 5,000 votes. Of the potential contenders he is probably the most unequivocally pro-Starmer, pitched himself in 2017 as wanting to “run the union, not the Labour Party”, and might be especially tempted if the hard-line Beckett emerges as UL’s candidate after Saturday.

Meanwhile, the union faces critical challenges, with many tens of thousands of threatened post-Covid-19 redundancies in those sectors where Unite has long been strongest, including aviation, aerospace and car-manufacturing. This threatens a further fall in its membership numbers, which have already been surpassed by Unison’s. Unite has imposed cost controls in anticipation  temporarily freezing its HQ contribution to branch funds, delaying a staff pay rise, and issuing an unusual directive from McCluskey calling on officials to press employers for a “union continuity payment” of membership fees for laid-off workers.  

There are doubts about how wise an investment a planned new £35m hotel and conference complex in Birmingham will prove to be. The employment crisis could also chip away at the union’s political fund (an enviable £18m before the 2019 general election), from which donations to Labour are made. Even members who lose their jobs only temporarily risk falling under the Conservative legislation requiring those joining a union after 2018 to opt into paying the political levy, rather than contributing automatically. 

Yet McCluskey’s legacy is still likely to be a union heavily in the black. Its general fund in 2018 – the last year for which official figures are available – was a remarkable £340m and its surplus of (mainly subscription-generated) revenue over expenditure for the year was £55m. The comparable figures for Unison were £74m and £3m. 

McCluskey boasted last year that Unite has “the biggest strike fund in Europe”, though it’s an open question how great a priority that is in the current relatively strike-free climate. Part of Coyne’s 2017 pitch was to freeze subscriptions and spend more on services to members: skills training for a changing work world, and creative recruitment, including among agency workers, those on zero-hours contracts, and women, who represented only a quarter of the membership in 2018.  

Turnout in the last general secretary election was only 12.2 per cent. And in the executive elections held this year it was a dismal 7.6 per cent, with over a third of members elected unopposed. Unite should surely hope it will be higher this time. Not only would this strengthen its leadership’s legitimacy but, in a transformed political and economic era, debate about the union’s future has rarely been more vital.

Donald Macintyre is the former political editor of the Independent and the Sunday Telegraph