The challenger for the leadership of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, has issued a devastating critique of current general secretary Len McCluskey’s relationship with Britain’s Jewish community.
Gerard Coyne told the JC he believed three senior members of Unite, with close links to Mr McCluskey and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, had chosen to “defend the indefensible” when they backed two individuals at the centre of an antisemitism enquiry at Oxford University’s Labour Club.
Mr Coyne, head of Unite’s West Midlands branch, also insisted that under Mr McCluskey’s hard-left leadership the union had wrongly “singled out” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when “for many of our members it is not something at the forefront of their minds”.
He said he was confident of ousting Mr McCluskey, who he believes is “obsessed with trying to run the Labour Party and the country at the same time” in a ballot of the union’s 1.42 million members later this month.
Responding to last week’s JC investigation which revealed how three Unite representatives on Labour’s NEC had been behind a decision not to issue warnings to two students accused of antisemitism and bullying, Mr Coyne said: “My view has always been, when dealing with discrimination as a union official, it is with those on the receiving end of the allegations where you start.
“You don’t start by defending those who are accused of having made the inappropriate comments.
“First and foremost, our representatives on Labour’s NEC are there to do a role on behalf of Unite. They are not there to be putting resources into defending the very people accused of wrongdoing. We don’t defend the indefensible. I don’t think that is right.”
Hostility to Israel and Zionism has been a constant feature of Unite’s political stance under its current leader, who was elected general secretary in 2013.
Mr McCluskey went so far as to claim Labour’s antisemitism crisis was manufactured for “political aims”, describing the controversy as “mood music” exploited by enemies of Mr Corbyn.
That opinion was passionately shot down by Mr Coyne. “We must be representative and supportive of all groups we work with,” he said, accepting that many British Jews have a negative impression of his union’s attitude.
“If we don’t do this, then we undermine our own strength, our own unity. We have seen growing levels of hate crime, be it with the Jewish, the Islamic or eastern European communities coming under attack.
“The debate does seem to be getting more vicious in tone — so it might be focused first on the Jewish community’s religious beliefs, and then on to everything that flows from that in terms of the state of Israel. The fact is we have had to have a specific investigation into antisemitism within the Labour Party. How it has been allowed to grow there is an anathema to me.
“To be saying that claims of antisemitism are actually a smokescreen for something else; that is one big cop out.”
Mr Coyne also argued that Unite’s leadership had taken the union in a hard-left political direction that does not represent all members’ interests.
“The Arab-Israeli conflict — to many of our members up and down the country it is not something at the forefront of their minds,” he added.
Mr Coyne, who grew up in West Bromwich and is from an Irish immigrant family, was keen to highlight and celebrate the contribution made by British Jews to the movement.
“Look at Manchester, Leeds and to a lesser extent Birmingham — the Jewish community was intrinsically linked to the fundamental beliefs of the trade union movement,” he explained. “There was a core sympathy with left-leaning politics. I don’t understand at the moment the sense that this isn’t acceptable.”
Urging Jews to re-join Unite, Mr Coyne says: “There is a home in Unite for members of the Jewish community, as there is for every faith.”