Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, is set to hold its General Secretary election in April this year, following Len McCluskey’s recent resignation as head of the union, in order to stand again for a third term.
Just like many of the leadership contests which have dominated the political scene over the past year, the election run-up has already faced its fair share of controversy.
The contest has been branded by some as a clash between Labour factions, and as the largest affiliate to the party, the outcome of the Unite election could have potentially far reaching consequences for Labour’s future.
McCluskey, who has been the head of Unite since 2010 and has taken on employers including Sports Direct and Argos, faces opposition from Gerard Coyne, Unite’s Regional Secretary for West Midlands. Coyne has been an active member of Unite throughout his working life, and has held the position of Regional Secretary for 15 years.
Running against McCluskey, Coyne has claimed that his leadership would avoid “Westminster power politics”, pledging to bring the union back to its members, rather than “dabbling in politics all the time”. If elected, Coyne has said that he would ensure Unite would become more flexible, responsive and transparent for all of its members. His main focus would be on falling real wages, the proliferation of zero-hour contracts and the erosion of workers’ rights.
McCluskey has long been a vocal and influential supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity policies, with Unite backing as a candidate in both Labour leadership elections. Coyne instead hopes to win the support of those members concerned with some of Corbyn’s policy stances. With thousands of Unite members working in the defence industry, Corbyn’s anti-Trident stance is a concern for the sector, as well as his recent consideration of a ban on petrol cars, for those members working in the car industry.
Coyne has also voiced his differences with Corbyn in regards to immigration. Following the Brexit vote, his campaign is expected to focus heavily on the question of free movement, in support of those Unite members who voted to leave the EU. While he is supportive of a Labour government, he has hinted that Unite should build relations with parties other than Labour in the future, after labelling McCluskey as “Labour’s puppet master”. As a result, there has been speculation in the future of Unite’s support for the Labour leader, if Coyne takes the win.
The election for General Secretary is one to watch in the coming months, not only as Britain’s largest trade union, but as a leadership contest which may also impact the future direction of the Labour party. If McCluskey undertakes his third term as general secretary, it is likely that the support for Corbyn will remain. If Coyne wins the ballot which starts in March and ends on the 28th April, Unite’s support of Corbyn could potentially be in question.