Elections for the general secretaries of Britain’s big trade unions usually receive scant media attention. The days when most newspapers employed labour correspondents have long gone, reflecting the decline in union power over the last three decades.
But the media will be paying attention this April when the UK’s biggest union Unite votes. The reason will be the link between Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn. McCluskey is one of Corbyn’s pillars, his biggest financial backer.
In the wake of the Copeland byelection disaster, one of those standing against McCluskey, Gerard Coyne, called for an end to Unite’s direct support for Corbyn, describing it as a waste of money.
Talking to the Observer, Coyne said: “One of my reasons for standing is value for money. Having ploughed the best of part of a quarter of a million pounds into Jeremy’s campaign, both the first and second, would I consider that value for money in terms of the outcome of the election?” His answer is a resounding “No”.
With the Parliamentary Labour Party seemingly paralysed, reluctant to voice dissent after last year’s coup debacle and Corbyn’s subsequent re-election, it might be left to the unions to apply pressure on him to stand down before the next general election.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of the UK’s second-largest union, Unison, which backed Corbyn for the leadership in 2015 and again in 2016, wrote in the New Statesman: “Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance.”
If Corbyn were to lose Prentis and McCluskey, he would be vulnerable, even if he continued to enjoy the overwhelming support of Labour Party membership.
Nominations for the election of the general secretary of Unite, which has 1.3 million members in Britain and Ireland and an annual income of around £150m, have closed. McCluskey faces a challenge from Coyne, Unite’s West Midlands organiser, and Ian Allinson, a popular union convener in Manchester and a former Socialist Workers party member. The ballot papers go out on 27 March and the election closes on 21 April, with the result expected soon after. In May, Corbyn will face another electoral hurdle, with Labour contesting council elections across the country.
Coyne, who said he had been in the Labour Party all his life, supports Unite giving money to Labour but preferably at a local level – and to campaigns directly related to the workplace rather than the upper echelons of the party.
Coyne said: “In terms of outcome in Copeland, it was a meltdown in support for Labour and I think there are some very clear reasons why that happened. The reality is that Unite has put an awful lot of money into funding a leader of the Labour party who seems to be out of step with the industrial policies and needs of our members.” He added that Labour should not be trumpeting the Stoke byelection victory either, given the share of the vote was down two percentage points on the 2015 general election result. Stoke should be a solid Labour seat in what is a Labour heartland, he said.
The union provided staff to help organise Corbyn’s rallies, volunteers to run phone banks, office space and finance when he stood for the leadership in 2015 and again last year.
Coyne, based on figures from Corbyn’s entries in the parliamentary register of members’ interests, said Unite had given Corbyn £225,000 in the space of 14 months. The union also provided Corbyn with more than £41,000 in other benefits such as staff and office space.
Corbyn received £50,000 as a loan from Unite at the start of his leadership campaign in July 2015, which was written off two months later, and another £50,000 in cash later the same month. In August, the union provided him with another £50,000 in cash.
Last year, Unite gave Corbyn another loan of £25,000 in July, written off later that year, and a £50,000 loan in August, also written off. Coyne said that if he wins, he would write to Corbyn’s office asking for the return of the £75,000 in loans he received from Unite last year.
McCluskey, who has been general secretary since 2011, starts as favourite to win again, given he is the incumbent. Turnout is traditionally low – only 10% last time – but an increase as a result of media attention could change the dynamic. McCluskey and Allinson could also end up splitting the left vote.
Coyne predicted the three-way split would make it a tighter race than expected. He rejected classifications describing him as a moderate or rightwinger and dismissed as utter nonsense the claim that he had been encouraged to stand by anti-Corbyn Labour MPs.
He described himself as being a member of the Labour Party throughout his adult life and a pragmatist who argues that the union should be focused primarily on the challenges facing workers in the 21st century such as zero hours contracts and preparing for Brexit – he voted Remain – rather than power plays over the Labour leadership.
“I understand the role of politics and the link with the unions but it is the obsession with Westminster and the leadership that I think we have got wrong,” Coyne said. “I do want to see a Labour government returned. I think working people do better under Labour. But it is how you go about that and there is a classic illustration of that in funding being used in leadership campaigns rather than supporting elections at grassroots level.
“Part of my criticism of Len is that he has spent too much time on the leadership issue and not enough time on the union itself and the day job of protecting our members’ pay and conditions, facing the challenges the economy has in relation to Brexit over the next decade and all those other issues that are going to hit our membership really hard.”
Coyne said: “The truth is you can’t face these two byelection results and not say Labour has got to up its game. To lose a seat we have held for 80 years is something that sends a shockwave through the party. The message has to be sharper because it is not getting through at the moment.”