Today voting papers are being sent out to all UNITE members for the election for our next General Secretary. An election for the General Secretary of the biggest union in the country would be important at any time. It takes on even greater significance coming when we face the biggest onslaught from government and employers in a lifetime. The winner will have a very significant influence over how our union responds, and the votes cast will be a barometer of the mood of the members.
So what of the candidates?
Gail Cartmail still doesn't seem to have developed a clear position on the future of the union, secured little support in nominations and I believe she stands no chance of winning.
Les Bayliss seems more focussed on winning support from the government, employers and the Tory press than from members. Les stands for a dramatic shift to the right in the union (when the Sun and the Spectator back a candidate as the "moderate" the alarm bells should ring!). He argues for a strategy of avoiding confrontation with government and employers, pursuing "partnership" and seeking to avoid defeat by avoiding conflict. How anyone can believe this is even an option in the current climate is beyond me. He has publicly criticised the conduct of the BA dispute, not for allowing it to drag on without mobilising sufficient pressure to win, but for confronting the union-buster Willie Walsh, and declared the dispute "lost" while negotiations were ongoing. He sees the dispute as damaging the "reputation" of the union. Many feel that an Assistant General Secretary declaring a dispute lost while members are still fighting against victimisation brings the union into disrepute with its own members - surely the first duty of a union officer is to support the members?
Bayliss is the only candidate who has refused to take part in hustings with other candidates, which would allow reps to ask him questions and test his arguments alongside the other candidates. The other three candidates all took part in an excellent hustings at the IT & Comms National Industrial Sector Committee recently, while Bayliss declined.
Bayliss has also alienated many members thanks to the tidal wave of unsolicited email (and some post) that many have been recieving from his campaign. Many believe he has abused access to union membership data.
In this context, I think the bigger question is whether Les Bayliss is fit to keep his current job, rather than whether he'll win the General Secretary election.
Which brings me to the two serious candidates - Len McCluskey and Jerry Hicks.
Len McCluskey is backed by the United Left, the "broad left" grouping in UNITE. He is backed by Tony Woodley, and broadly stands for a continuation of Woodley's approach. McCluskey won far more nominations than any other candidate, and is generally seen as the favourite to win.
Jerry Hicks is the only candidate who is a lay member of the union, rather than the three Assistant General Secretaries - part of the current leadership team. He's standing on a platform arguing that UNITE needs to change significantly to respond effectively to the current economic and political climate, and that only someone from outside the machine can deliver this. His campaign is run on a shoe-string compared to his rivals, but is clearly striking a chord with many members. His "what I stand for" includes:
- Change from a “can’t do” union to a “can do” union; from a campaigning union to a fighting union; from a centralised top-down union to a bottom-up union; from a union afraid of people doing the wrong thing, to a union determined to act; from a climate of fear to a culture of open debate;
- Officials to be elected by the members, not appointed;
- Officials to be accountable to members through the appropriate lay member committee;
- Reps, stewards and branch officers to have access to membership information about the people they represent. Internal politics at the top should no longer be prioritised above effective organising and campaigning on the ground;
- A General Secretary on an average member’s wage;
- Resources as close to the members as possible. Branches, Area Activist Committees, Regional Councils, Sector Committees and Equality Committees all need resources and authority if they are going to be at the heart of involving members in our campaigning and organising;
- Invest in training our activists, the future of our union;
- A dedicated unit to support officers, reps and stewards during ballots and disputes;
- Mergers if they make us stronger, not just bigger;
- Every equality committee to have at least one Executive Council member reporting to them;
- Political structures open to every UNITE member who contributes to the political fund, not just a tiny minority;
- An end to breaking our own rulebook by under-funding organising. Properly resourced organising, linked in to the union’s structures, to build up our strength and our activist base;
- Access to legal advice without slow and bureaucratic procedures
Whatever the result, it will be best for UNITE if there is the highest possible turnout in the election, so every activist should be encouraging members to vote. Distribution of a candidate's campaign leaflets and posters within the workplace is allowed, but no union resources or data may be used to support a particular candidate.