Unite the union should stop acting like Keir Starmer’s “backseat driver” and give him time to do his job, a lead contender in the race to replace Len McCluskey has declared.
Gerard Coyne, who was narrowly defeated by McCluskey in 2017, said Unite had been “more focused in messing around in Westminster politics” than delivering for its 1.2 million members in recent years.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Coyne also said the union should “throw open the shutters” on how it spent members’ money, not least on running up legal bills to fight “political cases” and on a controversial £98m hotel complex it has built in Birmingham.
Starmer is under increasing pressure ahead of the May 6 elections, with the possible loss of the Hartlepool by-election according to some opinion polls.
Earlier this year, McCluskey warned the Labour leader he risked being “dumped in the dustbin of history” if he continued to attack the Left of the party and failed to readmit Jeremy Corbyn as an MP.
But Coyne, the union’s former West Midlands regional secretary, said that he wanted to move Unite away from its general secretary’s practice of regularly commenting on the Labour leadership.
“Keir is the leader of the Labour Party and deserves the time with which to set out his positions. I would prefer to see a Labour government, so I’m supporting what the leader of the Labour Party is doing,” he said.
“But my focus is on what’s happening in Unite the union and focusing on our members. We’ve spent way too much time giving our opinions, our thoughts on the direction of Labour, being a backseat driver for the Labour Party.
“It needs to get on with its day job and we need to get on with our day job. Theirs is to go and win elections, and ours is to represent working people and improve their pay and conditions, and make sure that they’re supported when they need it.
“I’ve been a committed member of the Labour Party all my life, but it’s not what I’m here to do, I’m here to fight an election for the general secretary.”
The UK’s second biggest union is Labour’s biggest financial backer and has played a key role in Labour leadership elections, helping Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother David in 2010 and defending Corbyn through his tenure. It also has key seats on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).
The race to succeed McCluskey started last month and the new general secretary will be in place by September. As well as Coyne, other candidates include senior union officials Steve Turner, Howard Beckett and Sharon Graham.
Coyne said that he was confident of getting the 174 branch nominations required to get on the ballot paper, but pointed out that the hurdle was much higher than Unison’s 25 and the GMB’s 50.
“That gives an indication about how determined they were to try and get me off the ballot paper, but I don’t think that’s going to work somehow,” he said.
Although the Covid pandemic makes it difficult to physically meet the union’s members, Coyne said that Zoom call technology had made it easier to get in touch with hundreds of Unite reps, many miles apart.
“I think that the union has to operate in a hybrid version of engagement with our workplace reps that uses modern technology like this. It’s created a more direct form of democracy. If and when I’m elected that is how I will carry on as general secretary because it’s meant that I’ve been able to touch the pulse of the union.”
He called on the union to embrace the technology and hold a national online hustings for the general secretary election. Although some Unite workplaces such as Rolls Royce are holding remote hustings, the format does not allow for debate or interaction between candidates.
With turnouts in union elections as low as 10%, Coyne wants Unite to do much more to promote the general secretary race and if elected has pledged to create an internal “democracy commission” to regularly engage members.
”It’s fundamental really in terms of the long term future of the union, because if we are going to be a democratic organisation, we’ve got to start increasing the participation of our members. After all, we are a £175 million annual turnover organisation, it’s something that they have a direct interest in because they are paying the wages.”
The spending of members’ money is an issue which Coyne has made a centrepiece of his campaign, with a call for an independent review of the £98m spent on the Unite hotel and conference centre complex in Birmingham.
“When you hear the estimated spend was £7m, then £35m, then £55m and finally £98m, we absolutely have to have a root and branch review to learn the lessons,” he said.
“Did you know there’s a proposal for a ‘Birmingham 2’? In principle, the [union] executive have given the go ahead for a mutli-storey car park and another hotel. My view is we are not a property developer, we’re a trade union and that’s what we should stick to.”
Coyne’s plan for greater financial transparency includes a register of interests and benefits for all union staff. “I just think we’ve got to throw open the shutters and let the daylight in.”
Another area he believes money has been wasted is on legal fees for court cases, including some against the Labour party, that have little direct impact on union members.
Unite is due in court again next week as it faces demands to settle damages and lawyers’ costs to former MP Anna Turley, who won a libel action against it and Skwawkbox blogger Stephen Walker.
Coyne contrasts Unite’s record with that of unions like the GMB, which won rights for Uber drivers and Asda workers, and Unison, which challenged employment tribunal fees.
“That’s the bedrock of what trade unionism should be focusing on, on its legal activities driven from the bottom up, and not choosing to spend money on very high profile political cases. We should be actually focusing on the ones that benefit our members. Legal services should be driven by industrial need.”
He also thinks that under McCluskey the union has lost touch with its mainstream membership, not least on some issues that arose in the pandemic.
“I’ve heard from lorry drivers who are bitterly complaining that there is no toilet provision for them when they drop off their cargo. Members want the union to be campaigning on the practical things like that that help them, real nuts and bolts issues.”
Although his three rivals are undeniably more to the left of him, Coyne is also frustrated at being portrayed as a “right winger” in the general secretary race.
“I don’t recognise that parody of me being the right-wing candidate. I’ve been in the union as an employee for 28 years, I’ve been a member for 35.
“In terms of the classic ‘do you oppose strike action?’, of course I’m not opposed to our members taking an industrial dispute. Have I ever signed a sweetheart deal? No, never have. Have I ever signed a no strike deal? No. I just fight for members’ interests. Am I afraid of anybody? No, I think I’ve proved that.”
Coyne wasn’t afraid of his first boss when he was a 16-year-old with a part-time supermarket shelf stacking job at Sainsbury’s. “We had a store manager, who basically instituted a policy of when you were working on the tills you couldn’t talk to the people next to you,” he explained.
“This was before barcode scanning, you had to type it in and it was the most mind-numbing work. Not being able to talk to the person next to you made every shift drag and there was a sense of annoyance amongst a lot of my colleagues.
“So I went down to the local office of the Transport and General [union, a forerunner of Unite], grabbed a handful of forms. I started first by recruiting my mates and we recruited most of the store into the union. We raised it with the management and fairly quickly after that, that manager was moved on.”
Coyne’s activism stemmed from his deep family roots in trade unionism. His staunch socialist father was the local Fire Brigades Union brigade secretary. His maternal grandfather came out of the First World War to found his local Labour party in Birmingham. All five of his brothers have been involved in the labour movement.
Like his nearest rival in the general secretary race, his trade unionism is also informed by his love of football. Whereas Steve Turner supports Millwall, Coyne is a lifelong fan of West Bromwich Albion, another team that has for years battled against the odds and is facing relegation from the top flight.
“The truth is that I’ve always supported an underdog team,” he said, with a smile. “We’re certainly doing better than Millwall, whether we manage to stay in the Premier League or not.”