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Posted on 3 January 2013 at 17:18 GMT

Unite the Union general secretary election

Socialist Party statement

Len McCluskey of Unite speaking at the 20 October 2012 TUC demo against austerity, photo Paul Mattsson

Len McCluskey of Unite speaking at the 20 October 2012 TUC demo against austerity, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has decided to bring forward the next election for general secretary by almost three years.

Because of his age, realistically he would otherwise be a 'one-term' general secretary.

This move has been agreed after wide consultation on the left, including ourselves. Peter Taaffe and Rob Williams had a two-hour meeting with Len McCluskey where he asked for our party's endorsement of the steps he was preparing to take.

The Socialist Party has agreed to give him critical support. This is despite some political disagreement such as on Unite's continued support for New Labour.

This does not mean we will automatically endorse all decisions and actions of Len McCluskey and Unite's leadership.

We will argue for the need for Unite to break the link with New Labour, which has clearly indicated that, if it wins the next general election, will continue the present government's cuts.

Some, like Jerry Hicks, who has now declared that he will stand, and the Socialist Workers Party, have tried to argue that the early election is undemocratic and smacks of past sharp practice by right-wing ex-Amicus [one of the unions which merged to become Unite] general secretaries.

Some other activists, particularly from the ex-Amicus wing will have genuine concerns as well. But we have to frankly explain that it's not just a case of what is done but who does it and for what reasons.

Unlike with right-wing union leaders in the past or in the future, this election is not being brought forward in order to push Unite to the right but to consolidate the union for the left.

Providing the rank and file is strengthened, we believe that a victory for Len McCluskey can achieve this.

Ultimately the essential considerations are: what are the interests of Unite members, the left and the wider working-class?

Len McCluskey's leadership since 2010

The election of Len McCluskey in 2010 as the first general secretary of the merged union was a victory for the left in Unite and the wider trade union movement.

The Socialist Party supported his candidature rather than that of Jerry Hicks because we believed that Len was best placed to defeat the right wing.

A victory for the 'Simpsonite' [Derek Simpson, the previous Amicus general secretary] candidate Les Bayliss would have been a major setback for the left.

It would have meant Unite lining up with the other big unions, Unison and the GMB, along with the TUC bureaucracy against the smaller left unions.

Instead, Unite voted in favour of Resolution 5 at the 2012 TUC congress, supporting the idea of moving towards a general strike against austerity.

At the post-congress general council executive, Len McCluskey lined up with RMT general secretary Bob Crow and others to defeat the TUC leadership's attempt to effectively stop all talk of a general strike.

Unite flags - 2012 Oct 20th TUC demo, photo by Senan

Unite flags - 2012 Oct 20th TUC demo, photo by Senan   (Click to enlarge)

In apocalyptic words in 2010, Jerry Hicks warned that if he wasn't elected, it would be a disaster for the union and that it would never recover.

Actually, the huge potential of Unite has started to be realised under McCluskey's leadership. It is far from perfect.

In just two years in a union of up to 1.5 million members across 23 industrial sectors, with the history of the ex-Amicus unions, some of them right-wing, it would be an extremely difficult task under the best stewardship.

Unite is in some ways a mini TUC. It is four to five times the size of PCS. When this is considered, Jerry's words lacked a sense of proportion and perspective.

Despite Unite's weaknesses, there have been clear steps forward. There have been innumerable strikes by Unite members and some notable victories, even if partial and/or short-lived.

The Sparks, London bus workers, Paddy Brennan in Honda Swindon, and now the Doncaster Tesco drivers have all won some gains.

Many others from Unilever, Crown, Remploy and Amnesty, as well as public sector members in the pensions dispute have also engaged in action.

Len has emphasised that not once has he issued a repudiation letter to any Unite members taking unofficial action since becoming general secretary.

He repeated this in the national United Left meeting. He also immediately doubled strike pay to 30 per day.

In the public sector pensions dispute, Unite refused to sign up to the government's 'heads of agreement' and the union's members in the MOD and civil service sector took part in the 10 May strike alongside PCS and others, including Unite health workers.

Unite Health members on the 2012 Oct 20th TUC demo, photo by Senan

Unite Health members on the 2012 Oct 20th TUC demo, photo by Senan   (Click to enlarge)

However, this was under huge pressure from the health national sector committee. But this did show again that under McCluskey's leadership, the union can be pushed into taking action.

In local government, it has followed behind Unison and GMB as it regards itself as a minority union, which it is.

Therefore, unfortunately it didn't see its role as giving a lead and putting pressure on Unison in particular.

Left programme

We believe it is correct to give support to McCluskey, while we raise criticisms where necessary when we think the union hasn't gone far enough.

We will raise our programme during the election, for instance about making Unite a more democratic union, including the election of officers.

We must continue to place demands on Len McCluskey, particularly about the Labour Party and the need for a 24-hour general strike or at least mass coordinated strike action against the Con-Dem austerity onslaught.

On the Labour Party, we disagree with McCluskey's view that the party can be reclaimed. We instead pose the need for Unite to disaffiliate and work with other unions to create a new party for working class people.

At the national United Left meeting, Len said Unite would support Labour councillors expelled for opposing cuts.

He said he would be prepared to put to the union's executive before the next council elections that they give Labour leader Miliband an ultimatum that Labour doesn't stand against them.

He was well aware that this could change the whole relationship between Unite and Labour.

We also need to use the general secretary election to push Unite to lead the call for mass coordinated strike action, up to and including a 24-hour general strike.

This approach has helped prompt Len to state that Unite will ballot and take action alongside PCS on pay, which he says is the next focus for the struggle against the cuts.

PCS members on the 2012 Oct 20th TUC demo, photo by Senan

PCS members on the 2012 Oct 20th TUC demo, photo by Senan   (Click to enlarge)

Unite could put pressure on Unison and the GMB if it seriously links up with left unions such as PCS.

Unite's United Left has many weaknesses - it is still too much influenced by full-time officials and hasn't been able to attract enough fresh forces - but we still think that it represents the most forces of the organised left. We will continue to strive to build it and make it more democratic and accountable.

Under Len McCluskey's leadership it has been possible to open up the union and push back the forces of the right.

But we shouldn't write off the potential for the right to reassert itself if the union's leadership disappoints.

Instead of following our advice and coming into the United Left after the last general secretary election, Jerry Hicks has continued with his own 'Grassroots Left'.

But we don't believe that Jerry has proved capable of building the broad left alliance that would be essential to drive the union to the left, combat the bureaucracy and build across the wider trade union movement.

The re-election of Len McCluskey is an important step to consolidate the real gains that have been made, which can be the foundation for the union to move forward.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 3 January 2013 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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