A leading contender in the race to succeed Len McCluskey has declared there was “no wrongdoing” in the handling of Unite’s controversial new £98m hotel complex.
Assistant general secretary Steve Turner said that McCluskey and the union’s executive council had acted with “integrity” and with “a sense of responsibility for members’ money” when they monitored and approved the project.
In a message to the executive, Turner said that his enemies had misrepresented his recent interview with HuffPost UK, in which he said he would order an independent, QC-led review “if I was genuinely concerned” about the hotel and conference centre complex in Birmingham.
The new building, which will house Unite’s regional headquarters as well as a four-star, 170 bed Aloft hotel and 1,000-seat conference centre, has been dogged by criticism as its costs soared by more than £40m.
The union insists the extra costs were caused by high standards of unionised labour, the need to strip cladding related to Grenfell changes and the addition of an extra floor onto the hotel.
But Unite’s handling of the project has been seized on by Gerard Coyne, the “moderate” contender in the election to succeed McCluskey as general secretary.
The race for general secretary was hit by a fresh row in recent days when Howard Beckett, backed by some on the Left, was suspended by the Labour party for calling for home secretary Priti Patel to be “deported”.
In his interview with HuffPost UK last month, Turner said that if there was any evidence of “anything untoward” in the project “then absolutely I would have an independent investigation into it because this is our members money”.
While stressing that the hotel complex was a “world class” venue likely to bring in revenue, he added that there should have been greater cost transparency throughout the project and said that if he became general secretary he would improve financial oversight by the executive.
“We’re all as guilty as anybody else because we’ve all been in the executive [council] meetings where things have been raised and the cost implications have not perhaps been discussed in the way in which they should have been discussed,” he said.
It is understood that Turner’s remarks caused intense irritation among senior figures in the union and in a new written message to the executive, he appeared to apologise for giving any impression of criticism of the hotel project.
In his email, circulated to all regional secretaries and passed to HuffPost UK, he said he wanted “to clear up some misrepresentation” of his comments “by some of our enemies”.
“It is...regrettable that comments made by myself about lessons I have personally learned from the process, and would inform my future thinking on projects, are being used by others in a negative way to raise issues that have been already been the subject of detailed reports, addressed and closed by the executive,” he wrote.
“As I have always said, there was no wrong-doing on this matter, in fact quite to the contrary. Learning lessons from our experiences and examining ways we can improve is something I think we all do regularly, and I have, as I’m sure have you.
“I am very clear that our executive council, officers, staff and general secretary have always been committed to acting in the best interests of our members and do so with integrity and a sense of responsibility for members’ money. In doing so they have always had, and always will have, my full backing.”
Turner – who is seen as the favourite to succeed McCluskey because of his endorsement by the union’s dominant United Left grouping – also stressed that he had intended no criticism of the “lay members” of the union’s executive. He ended his message with the words “in solidarity”.
Beckett, who had sat on Labour’s ruling national executive committee on behalf of Unite, has been suspended following his remarks about Patel on Twitter. He deleted the tweet and apologised for its offensive nature.
The other contender in the contest is national organiser Sharon Graham, another leftwinger who has led the union’s push to expose working conditions at employers like Amazon.
Coyne said: “The current election for general secretary is a crucial moment of decision for Unite members, and the £98m Birmingham project is a test of judgement and leadership for all four of the candidates.
“My position has been consistent throughout: I will hold an independent, published inquiry so we can learn the lessons and move on. I haven’t said one thing in public and another thing in private, or ducked the issue. It is now clear that I am the only candidate who stands for real change.”
Turner’s letter in full:
From: EC Admin <EC.Admin@unitetheunion.org>
Subject: TO MEMBERS OF THE EXECUTIVE COUNCIL FROM AGS STEVE TURNER
To Members of the Executive Council
Cc: Regional Secretaries
From: AGS, Steve Turner
I’m writing to you directly following the publication of an article in the Huffington Post concerning our Birmingham conference facility. The article, one of two, followed an hour-long interview concerning my being a candidate in the upcoming election for general secretary.
I want to clear up some misrepresentation of comments I made within it by some of our enemies.
Firstly, I am and always have been throughout my 39 years in our union, a champion of lay member democracy, control and leadership of our union and would never do anything to bring that into question. Nothing in my comments could be construed to being anything but supportive of this.
Secondly, neither was it in any way an attempt to undermine the statement agreed at our executive in January concerning the facility, which I support whole-heartedly. I’ve visited the centre. It’s a world class facility for our members, a great investment for our union and a long-term asset we can be very proud of.
It is however, regrettable that comments made by myself about lessons I have personally learned from the process, and would inform my future thinking on projects, are being used by others in a negative way to raise issues that have been already been the subject of detailed reports, addressed and closed by the executive.
As I have always said, there was no wrong-doing on this matter, in-fact quite to the contrary. Learning lessons from our experiences and examining ways we can improve is something I think we all do regularly, and I have, as I’m sure have you.
I am very clear that our executive council, officers, staff and general secretary have always been committed to acting in the best interests of our members and do so with integrity and a sense of responsibility for members’ money. In doing so they have always had, and always will have, my full backing.