By Rhys Thomas
It is rare for a trade union leadership contest to make headlines or attract much interest, but the contest for Unite General Secretary has done just that.
It is not just a battle for control of Britain’s biggest union, but also a battle for the soul of the Labour Party and the future of progressive politics in the United Kingdom.
Incumbent leader Len McCluskey (a key ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) prematurely triggered a leadership election in December last year, opting to renew his mandate instead of serving a full term.
His main challenger is Gerard Coyne, a moderate who leads Unite in the West Midlands.
The two main candidates serve as an extension to the battle-lines in today’s British Left.
McCluskey has the support of the Corbynistas – those on the hard-left of the Labour Party who swept to power in September 2015 and who are seeking total control of the party.
Coyne is backed by all the anti-Corbyn forces including Labour MPs and represents the moderate, centre-left who are licking their wounds after two successive losses in Labour leadership elections.
The approach of the two frontrunners has also crystallised this split – Coyne for example has been in papers that aren’t naturally friendly to Labour and the unions such as The Sun, stating that he respects “the hundreds of thousands of Unite members who read The Sun”.
This predictably led to howls of derision from the McCluskey camp with their candidate having secured the backing of the Morning Star who shot back with “If someone seeking union election is prepared to stoop to the level of using The Sun for their campaign, then you have to question what else they would do”.
McCluskey received an early advantage when 1,185 Unite branches representing 559,000 members backed him, compared to 187 branches representing 98,000 members for Coyne with third candidate and self-described “grass-roots socialist” Ian Allinson receiving 76 nominations covering 37,000 members.
However, this has not been without controversy with Labour MP John Spellar claiming that 178 of the branches that nominated McCluskey were in fact “dormant” and used to make multiple nominations.
Coyne’s team believe that a large turnout could swing the election in their man’s favour (the last contest in 2013 saw only 15.2% of those eligible voting) with their aim being to hit 20%.
Coyne has tried to raise the profile of the campaign and has made an issue of McCluskey’s apparently improper use of union funds with more than £400,000 of Unite money being used to help purchase a central London flat, and he also accuses the former Liverpool docker of being “obsessed with Westminster power games” and shifting the Union towards a “highly politicised agenda” rather than standing up for ordinary Unite members.
For his part, McCluskey has stuck rigidly to the Corbynista line – that Coyne is a right-wing puppet and that the Parliamentary Labour Party along with the media are colluding to bring down McCluskey and his allies on the left.
Add into the mix a plot uncovered by the Guardian for hard-left Corbyn fan club Momentum to formally affiliate to Unite if McCluskey wins next month (which he has denied) then the stakes have become even higher.
The money and power that would flow to Momentum would seriously bolster Corbyn and further stifle moderate hopes that their wing of the party can stage a comeback. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson pounced and said this was further evidence of hard-left entryism which he has been warning about for months.
Clearly this election has been angry and ill-tempered with accusations flying from both sides.
Labour types may well be exhausted by all the infighting with Unite being the latest chapter in a bitter struggle.
This election will end on April 28th – but whether McCluskey or Coyne triumph, the infighting on the Left will continue with renewed intensity.