If that long-extinct journalistic breed, the labour and industrial correspondents, had survived till now, a public reproof for Unite’s leadership from within the union would have had more media attention than it has. After all, Unite is the largest Labour donor. And it is rare for serious activists to accuse it publicly of being “utterly out of touch” with “the real needs and interests of our members”.
Their statement that “many senior Unite activists on the very front line of the devastating impact of coronavirus have grave concerns about what is going on in our union” follows two recent events.
The first was hustings within Unite’s dominant United Left faction to agree its candidate to succeed the general secretary Len McCluskey. The narrow victor was an assistant general secretary Steve Turner, but his rival, the fiercely pro-Corbyn and anti-Starmer lawyer Howard Beckett, has since conspicuously failed to congratulate Turner.
The hustings, held after what United Left says were consultations with McCluskey, risk seeming a premature distraction, since not only has a general secretaryship election not yet been called, as the activists’ statement points out, but McCluskey has now insisted he will stay until his term expires in April 2022.
The second incident relates to McCluskey’s interviews where he denounced the current Labour leadership’s six-figure out of court settlements with former staffers who sued the party under Jeremy Corbyn over its claims that they had acted in bad faith by denouncing its handling of antisemitism complaints. (Corbyn has since added fuel to the fire by also accusing some ex-party staff of sabotaging Labour’s 2017 election effort.) McCluskey warned that Labour should not take Unite’s continued funding “for granted” and promised a future “major gathering” of the Labour left.
Neither development has impressed the Unite Alliance group which says that members “engaged in a bitter fight for … survival know that the real priorities are …. most definitely not …. squabbles about the next general secretary, nor … internal factional fights being waged within the Labour Party for which Unite again appears ready to squander members money to bankroll yet another costly legal battle. Without a laser like focus on today’s battles … there may not be much of a union left to lead.”
Unite Alliance is not some “Blairite” cabal, but a centre-left grouping with support in sectors including manufacturing. Moreover, its statement is signed off by Steve Hibbert, a member of Unite’s executive and convenor at Rolls Royce Derby (itself severely threatened by job cuts) and Sean Beatty, chair of the union’s British Airways’ cabin crew branch Bassa, which is in the thick of the dispute over 10,700 redundancies.
Unite’s leaders can argue that United Alliance represents only one slice of the union’s 1.2 million membership. But then so does United Left, to which many senior Unite officials, McCluskey included, belong, but which comprises a mere 0.1 per cent of the total membership.
True, one charge, that in the present jobs crisis, “we have seen virtually nothing of our leadership … in the media” hardly applies to McCluskey’s July response to BA’s draconian stance, and the airline’s accompanying threat to fire and rehire its remaining employees at greatly inferior terms and conditions – a threat the Conservative-chaired Transport Select Committee has described as a “national disgrace”.
But justified as the union’s outrage is, there are doubts whether McCluskey’s threat of industrial action is practical when up to 80 per cent of BA flights are grounded. There are also risks that the handling of the dispute in which both Beckett and another would-be general secretary, Sharon Graham, have both been involved, becomes embroiled in the struggle over the future leadership.
The threat to Unite members’ jobs extends far beyond British Airways. One estimate is that the union could eventually lose 200,000 members. Hence United Alliance’s exasperation at what it claims is the union leadership’s failure to call the government out “on its unbelievably bad handling of the crisis” or to publish “detailed survival plans for the worst affected sectors”.
The jobs crisis challenges Unite as well as its members, threatening to dent its £300m general fund and the political fund from which it has donated £7m to Labour since January 2019. But having lost the grip he exercised over Labour under Corbyn, McCluskey seems determined to fight for Corbynism’s survival. Which may be one reason why some in Unite think that while maintaining public neutrality, he has privately favoured Beckett as his successor.
This last is strenuously denied by senior Unite officials. And whatever else, McCluskey isn’t stupid. The question is whether he sees the Hibbert-Beatty cri de coeur as the warning it is. A warning that if his legacy is to be a union worthy of its name, he needs to concentrate less on politicking in a greatly changed Labour Party and more on the problems in his own backyard.