Brothers stand fast against a “grand coronation.” Alex Halligan reports.

Delegates at unite’s policy conference voted to ensure that all candidates are on the ballot in the labour party leadership contest. This is effectively an endorsement of the veteran leftwing MP John McDonnell. Unite is in the process of contacting MPs in their Parliamentary group and urging them to “nominate wisely” to ensure a proper contest.

The union boasts by far the largest Parliamentary group. And its influence within the party is far-reaching, having donated £11 million pounds in four years.

A packed fringe meeting hosted by unite’s ‘united left’ faction met in Manchester on Wednesday night and was addressed by McDonnell. Delegates cheered the rebel MP as he urged them to over-rule the unite executive, which they duly did the following day.

McDonnell said that he was “hoping that Labour MPs will listen to the members of our largest affiliated organisation and nominate so that all declared candidates are on the ballot paper and that trade union members will be given a proper choice.”

A unite branch officer from Hull raised an important point: “what do 33 MPs matter when we have 1.8 million members backing John? The rules don’t take this into account.  They are clearly wrong.”

Unite joins a list of trade unions backing an alternative leadership bid. The communication workers union and the bakers union (BAFWU) have been longstanding proponents of John McDonnell. A number of other unions such as PCS, RMT and the FBU have backed McDonnell’s candidacy.

The success of the motion surprised pundits and union insiders. “The process of selecting delegates was massaged, I thought they would have stitched the whole thing up”, claimed a unite political committee member.

The emergency motion presented to delegates on Wednesday had previously been deliberated by unite’s national executive, which rejected it and advised the conference to vote against. Insiders claim that unite joint general secretary, Tony Woodley, and many of his supporters on the executive supported the motion.

There is a clear divide in the union. Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson’s tempestuous relationship is no secret. There doesn’t appear to be much unity in their politics either. Simpson, a former communist, is backing the candidate of the right, Les Baylis, in the unite general secretary elections. According to rumours from the top, he is “deliberately not rocking the boat, hoping we’ll reward him with a lordship”

Derek Simpson having described McDonnell as a “donkey with no legs,” it is clear where the opposition in the union is coming from.

The other joint general secretary, Tony Woodley, is said to be backing McDonnell for the party leadership and “Red Len McClusky” as his successor at the union.

Tony Woodley declared his determination to “take the party back.” In a stirring speech to delegates Woodley pulled no punches: “I want to make one thing clear to all Labour leadership contenders. Our vote should only go to the candidate who pledges – unequivocally, no mealy-mouthed phrases – to do what Labour was set up to do. Create a level playing field at work, and scrap the anti- union laws.”

Unite may just shift the balance in the leadership election. And, though unlikely, McDonnell may just make the ballot.  If Frank Field can nominate him, anything can happen.

Alex Halligan is Youth Officer of North West TUC.

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