On Wednesday, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union, Howard Beckett, declared his intention to stand for General Secretary when the position becomes vacant, most likely in 2022, when Len McClusky’s term ends. Beckett’s announcement is likely to deepen the divide in Unite’s dominant faction, United Left.

It was widely believed that McClusky would step down sooner, not least because he had announced during the last General Secretary election that he did not intend to sit for a full term. Expectations were such that United Left, which has been key to McClusky’s own election victories, decided to nominate a candidate in anticipation.

Members of United Left were balloted with the choice of two candidate – Steve Turner and Howard Beckett. Turner is a long-standing organiser in the union, having started as a shop steward in the old TGWU. He is the Assistant General Secretary for the manufacturing sector, and Chair of the People’s Assembly. Beckett, on the other hand, was a solicitor before becoming Unite’s chief lawyer and has no organising background. He was widely tipped to be McClusky’s preferred successor.

On 18 July, it was announced that Turner had narrowly won United Left’s nomination by three votes. Beckett subsequently challenged the validity of the vote, alleging that some of his supporters did not receive ballots. United Left rejected any suggestion of voting irregularities and stood by the nomination process. McClusky then announced he intended to serve his full term before stepping down. Many to believe he did so to force United Left to reballot in the future, on the basis that opinions may change in two years’ time. However, with Beckett having announced his intention to stand regardless, these events have opened what appears to be a serious division in United Left and the union’s bureaucracy.

The Division

Since Kier Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party there has been a growing division within the trade union bureaucracy over how to relate to his leadership, which is so far to the right of Jeremy Corbyn’s. Some, of course, such as the leaderships of Unison and USDAW, never really had much faith in the Labour Party’s leftward course in the last five years, and are much more comfortable with the promise of “business as usual” under Starmer. The leadership of Unite, however, was close to the Corbyn leadership, with McClusky and his Chief of Staff, Andrew Murray and several other leading figures within Unite exerting a great deal of influence over Corbyn and his supporters. With Starmer in charge, the question is whether to come to terms with the new leadership in the hopes of winning influence, or to strike up a more confrontational tone and attempt to leverage the trade union’s considerable financial contributions to Labour in the hope of wresting policy concessions.

Turner has struck a conciliatory tone towards the new Labour leadership. Beckett, on the other hand, has been vocally critical of Starmer and even hinted at Unite ending its contributions to the Labour Party if it continues its rightward trajectory. Beckett’s approach seems to be favoured by McClusky, but the ballot in United Left clearly shows that many support the former, less combative approach. Ultimately, therefore, the division is not simply a left-right split, but more a debate within the bureaucracy about how to exert pressure on the Labour Party. Both, ultimately, see the interests of the membership as being best served by the union’s bureaucratic relationship to Labour, and the division largely focusses on how that relationship is to be conducted.

Broad Lefts

United Left is a broad left faction, which primarily concerns itself with capturing positions within the trade union bureaucracy. Once in power, the left officials have little interest in building power amongst the rank and file membership, and instead focus upon managing the relationship between union members and their employers, political representatives and government. While left trade union bureaucrats such as McClusky employ more radical rhetoric than their right-wing counterparts, and on occasion may have a more confrontational approach, they ultimately play the same role as negotiators between workers and employers, where the union’s industrial strength is a method used to win concessions. The union’s political strategy remains focussed upon the Labour Party. They see the union’s interests best served by the election of a Labour government, and their best hope is to win influence within it.

United Left has, since McClusky’s election as General Secretary in 2010, had an iron grip upon the union’s apparatus, and has been dedicated first and foremost to maintaining that control. Its primary role has been to secure the election and appointment of its own supporters to union positions. Some left organisations, such as the Socialist Party, have participated in this faction, in the hopes of winning some influence for themselves and their ideas within it. This has largely meant tailing the reformist leadership rather than fighting for control of the union by its grassroots, the dissolution of the bureaucracy and for class struggle, industrial trade unionism.

Rank and File Strategy

The pressing task for the trade union movement is to build resistance to the Tory Party’s class offensive. With the attacks upon NHS and education workers, the murderous drive back to work despite the ongoing pandemic and the ending of the furlough scheme, the Tory government is launching an all-out assault upon the working class. The Corbyn movement was a seminal moment, with several gains within the party that must be defended, but it was ultimately defeated because of its inability to build a mass movement outside of Parliament. A continued, obsessive focus upon manoeuvres between the union leadership and the Labour Party will offer union members no protection from the effects of the recession.

The parliamentarianism of the Labour Party and the bureaucratism of the trade union movement are both products of the struggle to reform capitalism and accept its limitations. The coming recession is on such a scale that this reformist approach will mean more deals like Unite’s aviation deal which sees workers taking a huge pay cut to bail out the industry and their future earnings tied to profitability. This strategy will once again shift the costs of the crisis to the working class, as their interests are subordinated to the need for economic growth and maintenance of Britain’s position in the world economy. A rank and file strategy in the unions must therefore anticapitalist, conducting a political struggle for the interests of the working class against those of the bosses.

Trade unionists should be demanding that their leaders instead take up a struggle for workers control in the face of the pandemic and recession, with the aim of defending ourselves against the Tory offensive and making the rich pay for the crisis. We should be pushing within our workplaces and trade union branches to build the organisation that this would require, both so that we can press for our leaders to act and to be able to take effective action without them. This means rank and file organisations of workers and shop stewards, both at a national and local level. We should also be fighting for the unions to help organise the millions of unemployed workers, whose ranks have been swelled by layoffs during the Coronavirus crisis, and provide organisational support to campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and the school students mobilising against downgrading.

Of course, neither of the current United Left candidates will advance such a programme and it is McCluskey who will preside over the union in the coming crisis. Socialists’ focus in Unite must be to build a rank and file organisation capable of struggling for members’ control of industrial disputes, the union’s relationship with the Labour Party and of the union as a whole.