Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/762/16558
Unite - build a fighting union
Kevin Parslow, Unite London and Eastern regional committee, personal capacity
The victory of Len McCluskey in the Unite general secretary election with 64.4% of the vote against fellow left-winger Jerry Hicks will be seen by the union's membership as ratifying the general direction of Unite since Len first took the position in 2011.
Based on his record, in particular of backing strikes, the Socialist Party gave Len critical support.
The fact that no right-wing candidate stood in this election shows that, under the coalition government's austerity programme and the attacks of big business, members have no enthusiasm for policies or a union that do not challenge the Con-Dems and their rich friends.
The almost 80,000 votes received for Jerry do not run counter to this and reflect the suspicion of many of his supporters that the Unite leadership may not move further in a militant direction.
That does not mean that the right have been permanently defeated in Unite. The trade union movement is littered with examples of 'left' leaderships that have failed to adequately fight for their members and have paid by handing unions to the right. With most of the issues following its formation now settled, Unite will have two major challenges that will decide its future direction.
In battling this government, will it link with other fighting unions such as PCS and RMT to force general strike action? Unite's submission to the TUC general council on the 'Resolution 5' consultation was positive in being 'in favour' of a general strike and willing to explore avenues for calling one.
But it explicitly avoids the question of naming a date, while also ruling out as too difficult coordinated 'industrial' action as opposed to 'political' action. Yet wasn't the public sector pension strike an 'industrial' issue?
Unite must not close off pathways to the action that is necessary to defeat this "government of millionaires", which could be fatally wounded by a general strike movement. In fact, Unite could play a pivotal role by calling meetings of executives of left unions and rank-and-file reps throughout the trade unions with the aim of discussing and calling action.
The other major issue is Unite's political stance. Unite and its predecessors have been loyal to Labour Party leaders but have failed, alongside other unions, to wield their influence to reverse the party's pro-business policies.
The union's strategy is for transforming New Labour by actively encouraging Unite members to join and change local parties while fighting for union candidates to win council and parliamentary selection contests.
Socialist Party members have been extremely sceptical as to whether this strategy can work. The union was far too optimistic about the possibilities of recruiting Unite members to New Labour, given the general scepticism towards its right-wing leadership. But we said that the only chance for this strategy to be successful would be for Unite members in New Labour to fight for the union's policies.
But this strategy has been tested where Unite members, as Labour councillors in Southampton, Lambeth, Hull and now Warrington, have voted against cuts, following the union's policy. They have invariably been suspended or expelled from Labour groups.
Unite has defended these councillors, to some extent, but New Labour's disciplinary actions reflect the near-impossibility of returning the party to its working class roots. Len has said that he will press New Labour not to oppose suspended or expelled councillors in elections but Unite must contribute to building local movements to back these councillors.
Despite some of his supporters' claims, Jerry Hicks did not support fighting for a new workers' party either, preferring to put forward a 'payment by results' policy: if New Labour repealed anti-union laws, he would support paying affiliation fees.
But Len and the union will be tested if and when New Labour goes into government. Will Unite sit on its hands and allow the right wing to get away with the continuation of austerity it promises or will it fight and face up to Miliband and Balls?
The Socialist Party believes that a new mass workers' party should be built for now. At the same time a left-wing Unite would provoke confrontation with New Labour.
What supporters of both Len and Jerry must do is work together to build Unite into a fighting union which will genuinely represent its 1.5 million members. This is the task of all those who want a trade union movement that fights back against the bosses' system.
In The Socialist 24 April 2013:
Socialist Party NHS news and campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
The Socialist; readers' comments