This week the 1.4 million members of Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, have begun voting on who should be the next general secretary. The ballot closes on the 19th of April, with the outcome likely to be announced later in the month.
Since 2011 the post has been held by Len McCluskey – ‘Red Len’ as he’s known due to his hard left political views. Mr McCluskey is the overwhelming favourite, having been backed by 1,185 Unite branches across the UK, representing 559,000 members. That’s more than five times the total of his nearest rival, Gerard Coyne, who’s been nominated by 187 branches. The third hopeful is Ian Allinson, an employee of Fujitsu in Manchester. He obtained just 76 branch nominations.
The incumbent also has the unanimous support of Unite Gibraltar, having been endorsed by the Area Committee and each of its four branches – the MOD/ISP, Health and Care and the Public and Private Sector branches. A spokesman said Mr McCluskey has opened doors for them both in the UK and the European Parliament and, for the first time ever, granted a seat on the National Executive Council to a Gibraltar member. Canvassing for votes last week Mr McCluskey said that under his continued leadership, Unite would be with Gibraltar all the way.
Now it may well be that Len McCluskey is indeed the best person to look after the Rock’s interests. But doesn’t a union that prides itself on its democratic credentials have a duty to its members to inform them about the other candidates and what they stand for?
Gerard Coyne for instance also has a solid trade union background having led Unite in the West Midlands for over 15 years. He’s considered more moderate than Mr McCluskey, and has accused the present general secretary of being the puppet master of the Labour Party and more concerned with playing Westminster politics than the bread and butter issues that affect the membership. In his manifesto he pledges to “clean up” Unite and make skills, training and apprenticeships a top priority.
Ian Allinson, meanwhile, has been an activist for 25 years and is the only rank and file candidate. He defends freedom of movement for European Union migrants and has accused Len McCluskey of backsliding on this issue since the EU referendum.
Mr Allinson is the preferred candidate of Jaime Netto, a former branch officer of the Transport and General Workers Union (before it became part of Unite). In an article for this newspaper Mr Netto, who went on to serve 15 years as a GSD government minister, said Ian Allinson is the only candidate with a sound track record of union organisation at grass roots level, and described him as “principled” and “an inspiration” for any trade unionist.
Three credible contenders then, it would seem. Yet Unite Gibraltar only tells you about Len McCluskey.
Evidently the four thousand-plus local members won’t decide who the next general secretary will be. Nor may they “even move the needle”, as the Chief Minister said of the local contribution to the overall Brexit vote last June. But that’s no reason to deny them the full facts and expect that they simply do what the union leadership tells them.