Unison’s backing of Keir Starmer signals wider trouble for Len McCluskey’s United Left faction in Unite

by Atul Hatwal

Unison’s backing of Keir Starmer is an undoubted coup for his leadership campaign but it is also a signal of a growing set of problems facing Len McCluskey’s United Left faction in Unite.

Solidarity and unity might permeate the public statements of the unions about their movement but the reality is that unions are competitors – rivals in shaping Labour party policy and in chasing after the same diminishing pool of potential members. The days of unions that specialised in discernable sectors or niches are long gone, most are now generic, public sector focused recruiting machines, facing dire pension liabilities and in desperate need of increasing revenue.

Since 2010, Unite has been in the ascendant on all fronts. Growing in political influence and attracting members off the back of its strident posturing and some real victories in labour disputes. Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader has represented the zenith of power for Unite and the hard left cabal that run it.

But now, the tide has stated to flow out for Unite and the United Left.

The union faces two challenges – within Unite, the hard left’s prospects of holding onto the General Secretary’s office are under serious pressure and without, Unison and the GMB are reasserting their more moderate position, dislodging Unite from it’s primus inter pares role amongst the big unions.

The hope within Unite’s hard left leadership was that a successful general election campaign, which bolstered Jeremy Corbyn and maybe even saw him enter Number 10, would enable them to ride out the growing challenges.

Len McCluskey’s successful re-election in 2017 was much closer than expected – he beat Gerard Coyne by 45.4% to 41.5% with the grassroots left candidate, Ian Allinson, securing a worryingly high 13.1%. Len McCluskey is not expected to serve out his full term, going potentially as early as Unite’s policy conference at the end of June this year, in his home town Liverpool and the internal focus within the United Left has been on securing Steve Turner’s step up from Assistant General Secretary to the main job.

Last year, at Unite’s rules conference, the process for standing for General Secretary was tilted decisively in favour of the main machine candidates. The number of branch nominations to stand as General Secretary was raised from 50 to 150. This makes it much harder for a grassroots left candidate to stand, splitting the left vote as happened when Ian Allinson’s candidacy nearly helped deliver a Coyne victory.

A strengthened Corbyn leadership with a new cohort of Corbynite MPs in the PLPs would have reinforced Steve Turner’s position, both in terms of the prevailing political mood and material support from the Labour leadership.

For the Unite membership, particularly the grassroots left voters that are seen as key to a Turner victory, a strengthened Corbyn would have been validation for the United Left leadership strategy and central to their case to members to keep the faith. It would have been the most practical demonstration of progress for their cause.

But now, following a shattering general election defeat, that case is in tatters. Boris Johnson is in office for at least a term, most likely two. For a large swathe of Unite’s grassroots left members, there’s little point in voting for Steve Turner – a compromise figure – rather than a left candidate aligned with their more extreme beliefs.

Even if a grassroots left candidate cannot get onto the ballot, the likelihood of these voters sitting out the General Secretary election has increased while the 41.5% secured by Gerard Coyne will likely be bettered whoever succeeds him in the election race, from the Unite Now faction – the centre left opposition within Unite.

Worse for Turner, as the Labour leadership election gets underway the other unions are acting to loosen Unite’s grip on Labour’s leadership.

Unison have moved early by backing Starmer, making it easier for the GMB to line up against Unite in their choice of candidate. Keir Starmer’s lead in the YouGov poll of party members makes him the go to candidate for unions looking to supplant Unite at the side of Labour’s leader.

Unite are tied to Rebecca Long Bailey as the continuity Corbyn candidate, someone many in the United Left have serious reservations about and who has a huge amount of ground to cover to win the leadership.

The combination of an electoral repudiation of historic proportions for Unite’s agenda with the prospect of an ejection from the corridor’s of power within the Labour leadership mean that Len McCluskey, Steve Turner and the United Left face a much tougher year ahead, than they have in a decade.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut

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14 Responses to “Unison’s backing of Keir Starmer signals wider trouble for Len McCluskey’s United Left faction in Unite”

  1. Anne says:

    Goodness – articles coming think and fast at the moment. This one brightens me up a little. Pleased that unison are backing Keir.
    Change at the top is definitely needed at unite.
    Even though Corbyn had a point about the legality of Soleimani being killed he just is not taken seriously – we do need Kier to press these points. Although Johnson stated that Soleimani had ‘British blood on his hands’ he did not want to dwell on this subject- we certainly do not want to be drawn into another war.

  2. Alf says:

    Keir Starmer cannot be trusted. Just look at the sort of political monsters who are cheering him on: Murdoch press, rump Blairites, Tory-lite union leaders, and the BBC. By their friends shall ye know them!

  3. Tafia says:

    If Labour selects Starmer as it’s next leader it will not win back the Labour Leave voters.

    Starmer is seen by them as the main person in trying to overturn our leaving of the EU and as a result, he is unacceptable to them.

    For Labour to have any hope of even forming a minority government in 2024, it needs to pick a leader who accepted the result to Leave and did not attempt to thwart it. Pick Starmer and you’ll be picking another in the aftermath of your 2024 defeat.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Way I understand it a unions executive says that union backs a candidate doesn’t mean that their members will either get to vote or will vote
    But if what you say is true then labour will have four factions working class blue collar Lisa Nandy,
    Middle class designer angst for those who like to virtue signal with Jess Phillips
    Student politics with Guardian readers backing Starmer
    And those who want to feel the public will one day say they were wrong to reject the Labour Party of old by Voting Thatcher with Long Bailey their preferred choice

    The party will have to split unless any of those factions get their policies adopted by labour without being in charge such as the Lisa Nandy RLB wings getting Brexit done, despite,the policy being opposite

    Labour has its 4 wings and they can’t go on they’ll have to split and either join the libdems or new SDP or for a student group

  5. John P Reid says:

    Cut the top bit off my previous post
    This is what I was meant to put

    Are unite, tied to RLB? other than the amount of money unite will stopping into the party if Thornberry or Phillips won?

  6. john zims says:

    RLB is Corbyn mark 2 = remain in opposition.

    Doing the same thing over & over again & expecting a different result,dream on?

    Momentum might love the last manifesto the electorate clearly didn’t.

  7. John P Reid says:

    John Zims, it’s a moral victory

  8. JoHn P reid says:

    Labours obsession with middle class votes is why it lost, It became a formula But it become a code totally detached from reality

  9. Henrik says:

    I’ve been watching this for a while, now – some may recall my exhortation to get the civil war out of the way even during the Coalition years, glad to see Labour’s finally grasping the nettle.

    Where you find yourselves, comrades, is in the grip of a fraction which values ideological purity over power and actually prefers to be in Opposition, where decisions have no particular consequences and planning can be, um, *aspirational*, to the hard work of government. Perfectly understandable, of course, the average hard Leftie can barely manage to tie his or her shoe laces, unfair to expect them to run a country.

    Talk of 2024 is nonsense. Whoever becomes the next Labour leader, if he or she has any aspiration to turn the party back into any sort of election-winning machine, will need to understand a few things:

    a. All the entryists, tankies, Trots and commies need to be thrown out. They’re an electoral liability.

    b. The Jew-hating thing isn’t going away. Sort it out. Get rid of the anti-Semites, be seen to be doing so and be brutal in the doing.

    c. Accept that the job in a. and b. above is ten times harder than the one Kinnock faced – the enemy’s inside the walls and even manning the gate, rather than milling around outside.

    d. Equally, accept that whoever finally grasps the poison chalice and sorts all this out is not going to be the leader who *might* win an election in 2029 or 2030.

    e. Be Leave or be Rejoin. One or the other. Accept that choosing one will inevitably lose all those who want the other. Hint: there’s a strong Leave government in place, probably not worth the battle there.

    If the Party’s left to the Momentum geeks and fanbois, the trots and the tankies, the commies and the wierdos, fine – but it’s the end of a magnificent political tradition and a fantastic history.

  10. Tafia says:

    YouGov study of 1056 Labour voters who switched to the Tories.

    Do you think any of the five candidates can address this? Because I don’t.


  11. Tafia says:

    hIf you can get hold of todays The Times magazine then do so. Caroline Flint gives her opinion on each of the 5 candidates.

    She doesn’t come across as impressed with any of them.

    Starmer not caring about yhe heartlands and putting personal ambition above them.
    Phillips “ridiculous”
    Corbyn fond of personally but hopeless
    Thornberry – least said the better
    Long-Bailey nothing at all

  12. John P Reid says:

    Tafia I read the article my copies at work seem to recall Caroline said something not great about Nandy but nandys my choice

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