Nick Cohen

Unite’s bitter power struggle could spell trouble for Corbyn

Unite's bitter power struggle could spell trouble for Corbyn
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Gerard Coyne’s campaign team will reform in Birmingham this week, as the whisper spreads that control of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, and a sizeable share of influence in the Labour party, is up for grabs. By rights, Coyne should no longer have a 'team' or a career. Last year’s election for the general secretary of Unite saw the far left and union bureaucracy use Putinesque tactics to ensure their victory. They marked their success by firing Coyne from his job as Unite's West Midlands regional secretary. He had had the bad manners to challenge Len McCluskey in a 'free' election. Clearly, such impertinence could not go unpunished.

Perhaps nothing will change. Labour sources implied to the Guardian they weren’t worried about the trade union certification officer demanding a fresh election. Last year, a breach of the rules was found in the election of Dave Prentis as the general secretary of Unison. But the Certification Officer decided not by enough to affect the result, so he allowed it to stand.

Two factors may make it different this time. McCluskey’s margin of victory was much narrower than Prentis’s – just 3.9 per cent of the votes cast. Meanwhile, the alleged scale of the attempt to rig the election was far greater. Certainly, the certification officer rejected Unite’s suggestion that Coyne’s complaint should simply be dismissed, and appointed a retired judge, Jeffrey Burke, to examine it instead.

The first order of business for Mr Burke will be to examine Coyne’s central charge that there was a vast effort by McCluskey and union officers to 'subvert' and 'manipulate' the electoral process. It began with the calling of the election itself.

Like so many of the leaders of the far left, McCluskey is an old man. He has combined his general secretary’s salary with his Unite pension. By calling an early election, he could stay in power into his 70s. The Coyne campaign alleges that the Unite executive committee did not have the right to let him run before his term was up. If the judge upholds the complaint, then the whole process would be invalidated.

But procedural irregularities are just the start of the allegations against Unite. The union is meant to be like the government. When an election campaign begins, union officers are meant to be as neutral as civil servants in purdah, while the general secretary is meant to step down and become just one among many candidates for the vacant office. McCluskey, however, remained front and centre after he had resigned, and the Unite bureaucracy allegedly continued to serve him. As the Coyne complaint says:

The Union continued to issue public material on a huge variety of issues which “promoted Mr McCluskey’s views as General Secretary of the Union and thus increased his profile in the election campaign.

This is the Coyne side of the story, of course. Unite has said only that it 'is confident that our rules and democracy have been respected through the election process and that any hearing will show this to be the case'. But the allegations are backed up with reports of Unite events, which seem to fly in the face of Unite’s rule that:

No Unite employee should campaign or provide administration support using union facilities for any candidate.

McCluskey did not look like a ‘candidate’ last year but a red princeling on a royal progress to a coronation. I speak from experience of dealing with the Unite press office during the campaign that Unite did not give the impression of being filled with neutral civil servants sitting back until a new general secretary was elected. On the contrary, they were so eager to get involved they threatened me and other inquisitive journalists with libel actions.

It wasn’t just reporters. The union allegedly tried to interfere with Coyne’s address to members and add its rebuttal of his entirely factual assertion that it had loaned £400,000 towards the purchase of an apartment in London’s fashionable Borough Market for McCluskey. (Coyne’s lawyers forced Unite to back down.)

It allegedly gave the contact details of Unite members to McCluskey but not to the other candidates. When Coyne’s supporters tried to level the playing field all hell broke loose. In a scene which says so much about the modern left, Unite's chief of staff, Andrew Drummond-Murray, a Marxist-Leninist Scottish aristocrat – for such are the cadres of the Corbyn revolution – reportedly helped dismiss Margaret Armstrong. A working-class trade unionist, Armstrong began her career in the Labour movement as the first woman to be works covenor of the Michelin plant in Stoke. She showed she had ideas above her natural station in life when she allegedly helped organise the leak of Unite members’ details to the Coyne campaign.

Armstrong is now unemployed. She suffers from angina and left Unite to care for a sick father, who has now died. Meanwhile, the noble Murray was seconded to Jeremy Corbyn's campaign during the snap general election and continues in his role at Unite. On and on the 36-page list of charges goes. There are claims that many members did not get ballot papers, and of spies in the Coyne camp. There are also claims that Unite employees acted as secretaries at 59 branch meetings, all of which nominated McCluskey for leader. Dormant branches of the union also suddenly became active, it is claimed; all 163 of these nominated McCluskey. In one reported instance, a breathless Unite official in Swindon raced between three different branch meetings in one day. As you can probably guess, every one nominated McCluskey.

There’s a long way to go. If McCluskey has to step down, however, attention will focus on what regime change in Unite could mean for the Labour party, its national executive committee and the selection of candidates. The union has an overmighty influence, and if control shifts from McCluskey to Coyne, Corbyn and McDonnell will be in trouble.

But it is worth thinking more widely. The balance between capital and labour in Britain is out of kilter. The gross injustice of executive pay shooting ahead while real wages for the average worker fall has many causes from globalisation to deskilling. But if a half of what Coyne alleges turns out to be true, it will be clear that a part of the blame lies with the awful leadership of Britain’s largest union.