Unite general secretary election

In an article in issue 632 of The Socialist, Kevin Parslow outlined reasons why Socialist Party members in the Unite trade union are supporting Len McCluskey in the general secretary (GS) election.

We have since received a response from Jerry Hicks, who is also standing for the GS, challenging our decision and contesting certain points in the article.

Here we print Jerry’s response and below a reply from Rob Williams, a Unite activist and convenor at the Linamar car parts plant in Swansea.

We hope this debate will help to clarify the left’s approach to this vital election to replace Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, the current joint general secretaries for the 1.6 million members of Unite.

We can’t afford more of the same

I am disappointed that the Socialist Party is not backing me in the election for general secretary of Unite.

As you say in The Socialist on 7 June, we share many policies: “Jerry is in favour of the repeal of anti union laws and confronting them when necessary, the election of all officials, and the general secretary on an average member’s wage.

He would prioritise public ownership and pensions and puts forward the need for a public works programme.”

Jerry Hicks

Indeed, when offered an official’s job I turned it down. I believe in elections not appointments.

So I question your judgement in backing Len McCluskey and the reasons you give.

The main case against me is that I “made a crucial mistake” in not participating in the United Left hustings meeting in September 2009.

Your account of this meeting is misleading because it fails to mention crucial details about exclusions and my response to them.

Three days before the hustings I spoke to the national secretary of the United Left about rumours regarding possible exclusions.

He said he hoped “sense would prevail.” I left him with no doubt that I would not participate if there were any exclusions.

Several supporters phoned me saying they would not travel all the way to Manchester to be refused entry.

A phone conversation with a Socialist Party member revealed that he was discouraging people from attending because of possible exclusions.

Disgracefully there were exclusions, about 30. None were right wingers but people with a record of struggle. Immediately prior to the meeting starting I asked Len McCluskey to support my request to allow everyone in.

He had the chance to intervene and resolve this but failed to do so. So I informed everyone there that I could no longer take part, the exclusions were to me a ‘picket line’.

After this, the meeting decided those excluded could now come in. But once in, the chair ruled in favour of a challenge and announced that, although those who had been excluded could attend, they could not speak or vote.

This made the readmission a nonsense, which is why we walked out again and refused to participate. You argue that we need to stay within the United Left and support Len McCluskey. I say that effective leadership will not be brought about by relying on a bureaucratic machine, by fear and favour.

In contrast, our campaign is building in the union and beyond, a network of activists, in workplaces, branches and communities.

Networks needed for the resistance. At Unite’s policy conference in Manchester (June), the United Left produced not a single leaflet on the business of the conference.

Instead they distributed freebies and literature promoting Len McCluskey with no mention of the United Left.

The United Left-controlled executive council voted to oppose a conference motion that would have made it easier for John McDonnell to get on the ballot paper for the Labour Party leadership.

Thankfully conference overturned them. Your argument in the article that: “Voting for Jerry Hicks will let the right wing in” is the oldest and most discredited of all.

It echoes the disingenuous line in last year’s Amicus election, of “Vote Hicks, Get Coyne”. Kevin Coyne was the right winger whom we soundly beat when I came second to Derek Simpson. Many told me afterwards that they regretted being taken in by that falsehood.

Kevin Coyne who is still a right winger, now supports Len McCluskey. Another reason for not supporting me is that I am not calling for disaffiliation from the Labour Party.

True I don’t, but I do say we should only back those MPs and councillors who support our union’s policies, ending the close and cosy relationship between Unite and the Labour Party.

More to the point, Len McCluskey whom the Socialist Party supports, is a longstanding, committed member of the Labour Party.

He has a ten-year plan to “reclaim” it. Any talk of him reviewing this position, I frankly don’t believe.

As part of the national leadership of the union for the last 20 years, he shares the heavy responsibility of letting the Labour government off the hook over privatisation, PFI and the repeal of anti union legislation.

I offer a real fighting viable left alternative but you choose to give your backing instead to Len McCluskey, ignoring his failings as a national officer for the past 20 years and his appalling handling of the BA dispute.

There’s no question there will be struggle and in these circumstances leadership is crucial. If action is “illegal” will he support or will he continue to keep his distance and repudiate?

Walkouts and strikes at Lindsey oil refinery saved jobs and conditions, occupations at Visteon secured pension and redundancy rights, and with Unite backing, the Vestas occupation could have kept the factory open.

But because they were “illegal” I was the only one of the four candidates to show solidarity. As general secretary I would continue to give support to all such actions. You have a responsibility to the class and you will be held accountable in the future for the choices you make today and the excuses you use to justify them.

Build the United Left, support Len McCluskey

We understand the genuine reasons which led to Jerry Hicks’s decision to stand in the election and we also share with him many of the frustrations with the present leadership.

Rob Williams

Further, there is no doubt that a victory for Jerry would be a victory for the left, not just in Unite, but in the whole of the trade union movement.

As we said in the previous article, Jerry’s programme is to the left of Len McCluskey and closer to ours.

We believe, however, that on the Labour Party he has an incorrect position in not calling for disaffiliation and standing for a new workers’ party.

We are not convinced that Len’s strategy to launch a renewed campaign to ‘reclaim’ Labour is likely to succeed; however, we don’t believe that Jerry’s position is essentially different in practice.

In Unite we believe that this election comes at a critical stage as it is the first GS election since the union was created out of the merger between the TGWU and Amicus.

Many Unite members and activists have been disappointed with the outcome of the merger and fear a victory for the ‘Simpsonite’ candidate Les Bayliss.

We, like them, see a Bayliss victory as a defeat for the left.

Hicks has raised the idea that there is no real difference between a McCluskey or a Bayliss election win, stating they are both bureaucrats etc.

We think this is a mistake.

A victory for the Simpson wing would push the union further to the right and would make it far more difficult for the rank and file to organise in the official structures of the union.

Of course, this would not mean that activists would be helpless as we have shown in Unison. But surely all those on the left in Unison accept that the Prentis leadership has proved a major obstacle in the many battles in the public sector over the last few years.

We believe that there is a real danger that by standing, Hicks could split the left vote, enabling Bayliss to win.

This is our major reason for supporting McCluskey.

We also believe it is wrong to write off the newly formed left organisation in the union, United Left (UL).

By supporting Hicks’s decision to stand against the UL’s candidate McCluskey, we would, in effect, be calling for a new broad left to be formed.

While the UL has many imperfections, it is premature to draw this conclusion. We participate in the UL and, with Jerry, took part in the UL hustings meeting in Manchester last autumn.

We believe that he made a mistake in walking out of the hustings meeting, not once, but twice. Despite what he says, he created the perception that he didn’t want to take part in a meeting where he expected he would lose the vote and would therefore be obligated to follow the democratic decision to support Len.

This was only exaggerated when it became clear that he had already booked a side room. We don’t doubt Jerry’s concerns about anyone being prevented from attending.

Actually it was Socialist Party members who were to the forefront in successfully getting the exclusions of the chair reversed.

As a result, Jerry and those who were barred were allowed back into the meeting.

We agree with Jerry that the subsequent decision of the chair not to allow the original 15 or so to vote was totally wrong.

Instead of following Jerry out of the meeting, we took the decision to stay in the meeting and argue our programme in front of the over 200 members who attended.

We made it clear that, because of the chair’s decision, we couldn’t commit to accepting the decision of the hustings.

It says something about the character of the meeting that this was understood by the vast majority.

Afterwards we agreed that, with some obvious flaws, those who were barred or walked out in support would not have affected the overwhelming vote for McCluskey.

In fact, there were always going to be issues about who could attend as the UL isn’t, at this stage, a strictly membership-based organisation, but has a vaguer list of supporters.

We have to consider if this materially affects the vote or the character of the organisation.

The UL is still a new organisation and is still to be tested. Just because you call something ‘United Left’ doesn’t make it so. What is important is the UL having its own internal democracy, with full-timers having the right to attend meetings and speak, but not to vote.

We continue to fight for this programme within UL.

For this and the reasons above we subsequently agreed to support Len McCluskey.