For a rank-and-file strategy: supporting #ian4unite in the Unite GS election

Unite activist and former executive member Sara Bennett explains the politics behind Ian Allinson’s challenge to the Unite leadership

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

Long-time Unite workplace activist, Ian Allinson, has thrown his hat into the ring in Unite the Union’s General Secretary election. The election was called at short notice and is the second time that current General Secretary, Len McCluskey, has called one before the end of his term. The short time-frame for the election limits union democracy by giving rank-and-file members less time to get involved in debating the type of trade unionism we need.

Genuine doubts have been voiced about whether standing a rank-and-file activist is the right thing to do. While these doubts often relate to the specifics of the election they also raise more general questions, pertinent to our times, about how the radical left should intervene on terrain that is seemingly unfavourable to workers and the left more generally.

Of course, there should always be discussion to determine which actions are best to take in any given circumstances. But many on the left, including the radical left, look at recent events – the Brexit vote, Trump’s election, Labour’s poor polling and Momentum’s inability to live up to its name – as sure signs that the right’s growing strength means we must develop a solely defensive position alongside wider layers of people around us. Many of our allies will be supporting McCluskey, and they argue that the revolutionary left should follow suit as a bulwark against the threat from the right.

Now, looking at the current health of the radical left, there is no denying that we have yet to come to terms with what it means to be a revolutionary in the 21st century, or draw salutary political and organisational conclusions to redress this. But we cannot put off the question of engagement until some more promising horizon appears. It must also be said that it is far more common for those on the revolutionary left to find themselves in a minority, and in circumstances which do not, at least on the surface, appear favourable. Socialists need to seize opportunities like these to popularise radical left ideas, connect up those who want a fight, and try to shift the union and political terrain in workers’ favour.

This article aims to outline and respond to some of the common arguments against standing rank-and-file candidates, as well as addressing the more general issue of how revolutionaries engage in politics.

Playing politics?

Sectarianism means putting the interests of your own group or party before those of the working class as a whole. The argument that arguing for revolutionary politics is sectarian – that it is irresponsible for revolutionaries to “play at politics” rather than support the more “realistic” politics of the centre left – has a long pedigree among the wider left.

This is one way that candidates most at risk of losing votes to a rank- and- file opponent seek to undermine the credibility of genuine workplace activists. For example, Len McCluskey describes Ian Allinson’s defence of free movement as ‘naïve’ and the diversification of skills within the defence industry (which is Unite’s own policy) as ‘pie in the sky’. In this election, it reveals McCluskey’s tendency to play to whichever audience he thinks will vote for him, even if it means ceding ground to the right.

Given the somewhat fragile state of the resurgent Left around Jeremy Corbyn, and the precarious state of the radical left in particular, it is understandable that socialists and activists should worry about splitting the left vote. In the current General Secretary election, there is no question that a victory for Gerard Coyne, the contender representing the right of the Labour Party, would be a significant setback. Those in Labour who backed Tory anti-union legislation and spoke out against members defending their jobs, pay and conditions are backing Coyne. Coyne is the candidate clearly most in favour of clamping down on free movement and furthering the scapegoating of immigrants with more immigration controls.

However, it’s also opportunistic for revolutionary groups to fail to intervene on key political arguments  – like freedom of movement – out of a fear of rocking the boat. This is particularly the case when elections offer a platform for radical positions that would otherwise never reach such a wide audience and which can pull debate in the union to the left.

We also need to consider the context in which such union elections take place. They are often foisted at short notice upon union members who don’t see the need for them, and find them remote from their day-to-day working lives, much like the union’s structures in general. Union elections usually fail to mobilise more than the minority of more engaged members, and members’ lack of time and information means they tend to benefit the status quo.

This is hardly inspiring stuff. As Ian Allinson has summed things up, had he not entered the arena, the choice would be ‘more of the same’ McCluskey versus ‘turn the clock back’ Coyne. This is not the way to involve disengaged, demoralised or dissatisfied members.

Some wrongly assume that if the choice were simply McCluskey or Coyne, members would choose the former. But this argument has proven to be wrong on other occasions. In previous Unite elections, Jerry Hicks, a grassroots activist standing on a left platform, beat the right wing candidates into third place by inspiring members who may otherwise have not voted. Outside the union terrain, pressure to support the “centre ground” Democrat Clinton over a more radical left Sanders challenge resulted in the election of Trump in the US. Quite simply, “more of the same’ is just not what a lot of people want any more.

In the current situation, if McCluskey saw a real risk of a right- wing victory, why call an election in the first place? And if members were disillusioned enough to consider voting for Coyne, simply blaming that on the fact that a grass roots activist is standing would be absurd. The blame for that, surely, would have to lie for the most part with the current leadership.

The ‘lesser of two evils’ argument reflects a ‘things can only get worse’ mentality, and a lack of belief that real radical alternatives are possible or can have wide enough appeal to be winnable. It becomes a defensive position, where elections have to be won by tactical manoeuvres rather than winning an argument around a set of positions. Those people who argue it either have a material interest in the status quo or don’t believe working class people can be won to better politics.

Moments of opportunity

While politics in the UK and the world more generally have certainly become more polarized and unstable in the last few years, there have also been opportunities for the left to intervene. Hundreds of thousands marched against austerity, and public sector workers struck to defend pensions in 2011. Junior doctors took strike action last year, and there’s a current wave of strikes in transport. We’ve seen the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, and mass demonstrations against the recent election of Trump and in defence of migrants’ and women’s rights. This does not denote an unstoppable shift to the right. And what trade union leaders choose to do in those circumstances can make a real difference. What if Unite had organised a mass demo in defence of the NHS during the junior doctors’ strike, or better still, balloted its own NHS members over action? If left trade union leaders back off from seizing opportunities and prevaricate over clear, principled positions when the terrain is favourable, while the radical left argue that the ‘time is not ripe’ to intervene, it’s no surprise if the right makes gains.

Of course, it’s true that a radical left candidate will win some votes away from McCluskey. But there is no set way union members vote. It is simply not true to say there is a predefined left vote to be divided. It is clear that some of those who vote for the right- wing candidate may also have been considering voting for McCluskey before. There is nothing intrinsically left leaning about union membership, it is something that has to be won. We certainty can’t expect members to vote for something more radical if it is not on the ballot paper.

It’s easy to see why ordinary workers may feel that a workplace activist lacks the necessary experience to be an effective union leader. The shift over the past few decades towards the professionalisation of union bodies means many people see them as organisations where paid officials service the members rather than bodies that are led by the members themselves. From that point of view, it’s easy to see how members might consider a long list of officer appointments as a prerequisite for the role of General Secretary. But if Ian Allinson were elected, he would not be short of large numbers of experienced officials at the top of Unite. The problem is, as he himself states, “There is a lack of people at the top of Unite who have (in recent decades) shared the experiences and frustrations of members at the sharp end.” Standing a rank-and-file candidate is part of the process of raising an argument about what seriously organising for a rank-and-file strategy would mean.

Of course, a rank-and-file leader is not the same as a rank-and-file led union; one where workers actually wield some power over their workplaces, sectors and communities. But it can make a shift in the right direction and we have living examples of this. One of the most popular and effective General Secretaries of recent times, Mark Serwotka of the Public and Civil Servants (PCS) union, was a workplace activist when elected in 2000 and has continued to be re-elected leader ever since.

Shifting the debate left

Ian Allinson is currently the only candidate who is putting forward a clear position of rebuilding workplace activism as the way to rebuild the union and also take on the fight against austerity. His staunch position on free movement and rights for migrant workers was a welcome early intervention when McCluskey was already making noises about tighter restrictions. Not only did it send out a clear message to Unite members about Allinson’s position, it also forced McCluskey to clarify his own. Would that have happened had Allinson not been standing? More recently, Ian made public the union’s report into the sexist and often bullying treatment experienced by many of its women officers – a report which the leadership had been keen to keep under wraps. Now that a light has been shone onto these practices the union will have to address these matters, and be seen to do so in a transparent and serious manner.

This means there is a clear choice in the election, not simply between left and right, but three different visions of where the union should go. We should remember that if Allinson had not stood, the chance to argue for a rank-and-file strategy capable of driving politics to the left will be lost. Standing as a grassroots activist in such a high profile union election is not an easy option. It might not make Ian popular with some fellow union members supportive of Len McCluskey. But socialists have to seek out and take opportunities to make radical alternatives heard more widely, to speak to those beyond our usual networks. It is one of the only ways we can make those options heard and also one of the ways we can test how palatable they are to ordinary members. In doing so, socialists can start to find and connect up the best activists in workplaces and beyond, with a view to building networks for the future.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of the rs21 magazine 


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