At first there was only one candidate and no opposition. But things changed and this British union’s next elections its million and a half members will be able to choose their next General Secretary: current leader Len McCluskey, or the opponent to his left, Jerry Hicks.
The elections were due to take place in 2015, but instead were brought forward and Unite members begin voting this week. The union represents workers across many sectors, including transport, construction, industry, finance, health, catering and cleaning.
Last December an election for the post of General Secretary was announced, and from January 5 potential candidates had just 7 weeks to raise enough support to be allowed onto the ballot paper. It was a race against time.
In the end the incumbent Len McCluskey received over 1,000 nominations. Meanwhile another candidate got 136, more than double than the minimum of 50 required to challenge for the leadership position. That candidate was Jerry Hicks.
“These elections should never have been called”, says Hicks, who claims McCluskey had banked on no other candidate gathering enough support in the time given to be able to oppose him – an undemocratic scenario.
The official reason for bringing forward the elections was so that they did not coincide with the 2015 General Election. Hicks claims that “if I hadn’t raised enough support for my candidacy, there would have been no election and McCluskey would have continued unopposed until 2018, by which time he will be 67”.
Hicks’ position, coming from the democratic left, is that if the elections in Unite had been closer to the General Election, then Unite could have put more pressure on the Labour Party to adopt its policies. The union has donated £6 million to the party in the last four years 4 years, and is one of the party’s main funders, and in his view that is reason enough for the union’s principles to be heard and defended in Parliament.
Nevertheless Hicks’ campaign is not just about opposing the current general secretary. It seeks to turn Unite into a more participatory union based on principles of collective action.
The turnout in the last general secretary elections was just 15.8%, a very low figure. According to Jake Lagnado, Unite activist and a Hicks sympathiser “low participation becomes a vicious circle. The members don’t see the union as their own or as a vehicle for fighting back. And the less they participate the less fighting back there is.”
“The current leadership holds all the cards in its favour. Top full-time officials are campaigning in support of the current general secretary general. Its David versus Goliath”.
Hicks, a union activist of some 30 years who was sacked by the Rolls Royce in 2005 because of his union activity, advocates less words and more action. Democracy, equality and solidarity are the principles at the heart of his campaign.
In terms of democracy, he proposes that members elect their own full-time officials, as in some other unions. In contrast McCluskey supports the current system of appointed these representatives.
One of his more controversial proposals, drawing charges of populism, is that the general secretary should receive an average worker’s wage, because it is wrong that they should be paid upwards of £100,000 a year. For Lagnado “someone on that kind of salary can’t identify with members’ lifestyles”.
The solidarity Hicks refers to relates to the anti-union laws passed by the government of Margaret Thatcher which amongst other measures prohibit one group of workers striking in support of another. In Lagnado’s opinion “we need to challenge these laws more openly because history shows us that they are brought down not so much through lobbying but through disobedience”.
As one of Labour’s main benefactors, Unite intends to continue trying to get its voice heard in Parliament. For that reason Jerry Hicks argues that if the union is to give the party money then it should only support those MPs who back its causes. The two candidates’ differences in this area are highlighted by the fact that in the last Labour leadership elections, McCluskey supported Ed Miliband, whilst Hicks backed John McDonnell.
Although Hicks is the outsider in this election, the fact that he has got himself on the ballot has been for his supporters not just a victory for democracy but shows that with enough time they might have built a stronger opposition to the reigning General Secretary.
For more information: http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/about-us/structure/2013generalsecretaryelection/