Just what is going on? Are these people obsessive? Have they got nothing better to do?
I’m not referring to the candidates for general secretary of Amicus, which went back down to four this week, but the political correspondents who have suddenly decided that trade union politics are interesting after all – and therefore crowded onto my patch. By popular demand*, I’m returning to the ever-fertile subject that is Britain’s biggest union. Where to begin?
No, not with whether all this threatens Labour’s funding. Wait till the end.
The Times’ recent coverage of Derek Simpson’s impressive pay and benefits package, together with a piece recapping on the alleged tensions between Simpson and Woodley, were not massively topical or on-the-day. Far from being driven by events, they have all the hallmarks of some particularly nasty briefing from deep within the union. Not without irony did The Times itself report that “damaging stories about both men appeared to be the result of tit-for-tat briefings”.
This is not surprising. The election got personal a while ago, as I recorded in my last post on the subject. Kevin Coyne, who came a close second to Simpson in the nominations race, sees himself as the frontrunner now. He and Simpson were once brothers in arms in the (now defunct-looking) ATU Network Amicus political caucus, whose politics could be variously described as “moderate”, “centrist” or “Blairite”. Judging from his website, Coyne’s main beef with Simpson is that he hasn’t delivered the merger – an allegation which touches a nerve. Coyne’s recent attack on Simpson’s pay and benefits (a bit later than Jerry Hicks’ own jibes), together with – horror of horrors! – being endorsed by a Murdoch paper can’t have helped matters between the men, not least as it suggests Labour MPs (many of whom are Unite members) are turning against Simpson.
Charlie Whelan, who as Unite’s political director takes a keen interest in maintaining the transmission belt between Number 10 and Derek Simpson, and who likes his MPs to be keen on both, can’t be too pleased.
And this is what makes the two issues of election and merger inseparable. Apart from Jerry Hicks, all the candidates for general secretary engage in the rather amusing (however sincere) exercise of saying the election they’re trying to win is unnecessary. So if they can’t play the man (apart from his pay package), what can they play? The merger.
Unite’s official line is that the merger is effectively complete. Whether or not that is true, it is hard for me to find someone outside the press office who will tell me this. Even optimists say that the merger is well advanced or unstoppable rather than finished. “So,” I asked a senior source last year, “the merger is unsinkable?” Yes, came the reply. But then so was the Titanic. Kevin Coyne is less witty but more downbeat. “The union still needs to be brought together,” he says. “The merger is very far from complete. We still have two support offices, two systems for communication…” Agreeing to merge departments is not the same as actually merging them, he argues. The two headquarters are an embarrassment, he says.
He might go on to say that having two heads of each ‘merged’ department is unsustainable. The finance department, which for obvious reasons has been fought over, now has as its heads Les Bayliss, former Amicus head of finance, and T&G finance man Ed Sabisky. And unlike Simpson and Woodley, there’s no election for them.
Where does this leave us? Well, the dropping out of left-but-not-far-left candidate Laurence Faircloth has polarised things a little. Faircloth’s call for his supporters to back Simpson – having previously written him off as over-ambitious – will raise some eyebrows; both Coyne and Hicks are now going after his fan base. The fourth candidate, Paul Reuter, is trailing somewhat behind the other two challengers, probably because he’s less well known than Coyne and not radically different (oh, and his website is hard to find.) But Amicus members won’t get the chance to vote till the week beginning 16 February.
It also reminds us that personal ties count for a lot in a union. Old friends stick together, old enemies stay apart. And old friends who become enemies are the bitterest enemies of all. As the merger continues, and key jobs get divided up, these are coming to the fore.
And finally; what of Unite’s multi-million pound funding of Labour, and its promise to save the party from bankruptcy? Is it under threat, as the FT’s assiduous Jim Pickard tantalisingly suggested recently? Well, no. A new general secretary may not follow Derek Simpson’s example and spend £50,000 of union money on a work of art at a Labour fundraising auction, but neither would they cut off the political fund. The only candidate who doesn’t support the Labour Party is Jerry Hicks, and even he hasn’t threatened to reduce funding to zero. Moreover he’d have a job and a half to touch the political fund at all. Such a matter would have to go tho the union’s annual conference, where a fight would break out.
*I am reliably informed that Jerry Hicks reads this blog