Trouble at Unite – Part II

Unite website. Still under construction.(This post comes in two parts: Part 1 deals with The Fight and Part Two with The Merger).

Part 1: The Fight

“I guess the election will go ahead, and Derek will win,” the Unite insider said with a facial shrug of the shoulders as I quaffed diet coke (I was trying to cut calories) during a private, after-hours chat in a pub the other week.

He was right. After all, at the time Derek Simpson was only being challenged for his job being co-leader of Britain’s biggest union (see below) by Jerry Hicks – branded a destructive “Trot” by his enemies to the right of him, and who has not sought to reach out to left groups in the union – and Laurence Faircloth. Neither had apparently attracted a broad base of support. The ballots would go out and most people would tick the box next to the most familiar name.

How times change. There are now at least four challengers for the job of Unite Amicus general secretary, not including Simpson, and Faircloth has secured the backing of the Amicus Unity Gazette political group. All big unions have these groups or caucuses; the leftish one tends to contain members of the Socialist Workers Party and the rightish one people broadly supportive of New Labour who may write for Progress. (Note for the stupid: terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ are used relatively.)

Anyway, never mind all that. The point is – with five candidates, the ordinary member is now likely to start asking questions about why so many people are standing. And in particular why the latest contender, Paul Reuter (no website, says he doesn’t need one) is doing so despite being a national secretary and therefore (one might think) having his head firmly screwed on, so to speak.

All of which must leave Simpson a little rattled, especially judging by his reaction to one candidacy. Meanwhile, the union machine that could normally be relied on to defend the leader is not firing on all cylinders: one Simpson’s key aides, national political director Charlie Whelan, is facing serious grievance procedures from his own political department, as The Times reports.

And in case anyone thinks Faircloth is now the frontrunner, there’s a good old lefty argument going on about whether they should have nominated him at all.

What does this matter? Eight million pounds, for a start. That’s the size of Unite’s political fund, and it’s set to get bigger. The union is gearing up on a national level to help Labour win the next election. It will provide canvassers, cold-callers and of course hard cash, and while Whelan is in post it will back Brown to the hilt. Jerry Hicks and, to an extent, Laurence Faircloth threaten this: Hicks is an ex-SWP and current Respect Renewal (pro-Galloway) member, while Faircloth, though a Labour man, is not shy of saying that the government has disappointed unions. More importantly he’s been quoted as saying: “It’s time to end the practice of giving the national Labour Party millions of pounds every year with no strings attached”. If there is going to be an early election, that’s money the party needs more than ever. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election co-ordinator, must be watching.

Part 2: The Merger

Meanwhile, Unite’s merger remains incomplete. You have to ask why. It’s true that the election for general secreatary forced the Amicus section to put back the formal merger till May, but that’s really not the point. Until October’s executive meeting, Unite was supposed to become one indivisible entity this month. Yet many important structures are not inplace, as Simpson partly acknowledges in his memo. The voluntary redundancy programme for union staff hasn’t been completed and, perhaps most importantly, the finance department hasn’t been merged.

Most visibly of all though, Unite’s website (pictured) remains a bit of a shell. Apart from press releases, a list of campaigns and video clips from the union’s Internet TV channel, there’s not a lot there. Many links take you over to the separate and fully-formed T&G and Amicus websites – which, interestingly, are still being kept bang up to date, including copies of all the press releases on the Unite website.

It’s already a matter of public record that Simpson’s opposite number, Unite T&G general secretary Tony Woodley, is saying that some people are deliberately holding up the merger. If external appearances are anything to go by, they’re pretty good at it. If I were Unite’s webmaster, I’d be either (a) thoroughly ashamed of myself or (b) thoroughly pleased at my success in holding up the merger, depending on where I stood.

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