Trouble at Unite – Part III: “Unsinkable… but so was the Titanic”

journalists jostling 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


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10 Responses to “Trouble at Unite – Part III: “Unsinkable… but so was the Titanic””

  1. Enoch Was Right Says:

    Intellectually, morally and financially bankrupt NuLab is being propped up by trade lefty unions? What a surprise.

    Since Brown has financially bankrupted his party, filled it full of liars without a new idea to speak off except staying in office, its a surprise that the country isn’t broke or gone to the dogs.

    Oh. Hang on…

  2. G. A. Reeves Says:

    Thatcher wouldn’t have stood for this!

  3. Aeneas Says:

    Interesting post.

    What annoys me about the union’s political fyunds is when it part-takes in gratuitous partisan attacks that don’t really advance their primary aims.

  4. UKIPer Says:

    would anyone notice if the labour party went bankrupt?

  5. Paul Reuter's Blog Says:

    What an interesting article.

    Paul Reuter’s blog can be found at

    The clue is in the title…sorry, I couldn’t resist that comment.
    If anyone taps in “amicus gs election” in their search engine they will find it, well that’s how I found it…but I am no expert!

    I have noted that his blog wasn’t set up until about the end of Nov 08, half way through the nomination process, and after other candidates had started to attack each other openly in the media. The seeking of nominations then started on or around that time, that may explain the numbers.

    However, if you do understand trade union elections you will know that the nomination process is no indicator to how the general membership will vote, and that the election address is extremely important in this process.

    My guess is that 3 of the election addresses will be negative, with attacks on each other, whilst Mr Reuter’s may be positive, focused on his experience, policies and the future.

    What ever your political persuasion you have to admire this clean focused campaigning approach and I am not sure that most of the full time officers or activists want somebody that is so “radically different” to Derek Simpson.

    Simpson’s problem is that he cannot take the union forward past another 18 months, it is not his age, this is not an age issue to trade unionists, as trade unionists are dealing with members that are making requests to work beyond their retirement age on a regular basis.

    This is about winning the Unite Election, the left T&G section may want Derek Simpson to win so that no 18 month platform can be given to a former Amicus candidate.

    The winner of this election will have a minimum of 12 months to campaign for the Unite Election and those within Unite who have vision will know this.

    Mr Coyne is seen as too far on the right by some activists and officers, the endorsement by the Times hasn’t helped him, but you are right “he and Simpson were once brothers in arms in the (now defunct-looking) ATU Network” hence the accusation of personal ambition.

    Mr Hicks is seen as too far on the left, and inexperienced to run, as you put it “Britain’s biggest union” but they are both trade unionists and in the main, good principled people.

    Mr Reuter is the sensible choice, full time officers may support him to avoid a blood bath and members may admire the professional approach and prove that by voting for him.

    I have read his credentials, he was elected and he is ex AEU which may appeal to both the former AEU and GPMU sections.

    Now remind me, what was that story about the tortoise and the hare?

    By the way, your site is also difficult to find, I found it via another link, but you may be pleased to note that I have now saved in my favourite’s column!

  6. lastreporter Says:

    Thanks for these comments, Paul Reuter’s Blog (I see you’re not Paul, but anyway no matter). Don’t worry, I found Reuter’s blog some time ago.

    I have indeed been told by Mr Reuter himself that there are things more valuable than whether one’s website is easy to find. Frankly I don’t know just how important nominations are. It’s been pointed out (and I think I’ve linked to the relevant article) that Derek Simpson was way behind Ken Jackson in terms of nominations, and went on to win.

    Still, the figures are there, and like any journalist I will insist on making a story out of them. But I would hazard a guess that non-journalists and Unite members will look at them too, especially if they have not formed a view yet as who to vote for.

    As for election addresses, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Tribune were to publish a version of them as voting gets underway – we’ll see, it’s a matter for the editor.

    By the way, I say the Reuter blog is hard to find because I didn’t find it on typing ‘Paul Reuter’ into Google. If you type my name in (yes, I do do that sometimes, cause I’m sad) it comes up at the top.

  7. lastreporter Says:

    P.S. You said: “This is about winning the Unite Election, the left T&G section may want Derek Simpson to win so that no 18 month platform can be given to a former Amicus candidate.”

    If you mean that the left T&G section want Derek to win so he can’t become the single Unite GS, then I have to tell you that many of Simpson’s critics say they think he will try to do just that.

    Thanks for your comments!



  8. lastreporter Says:

    P.P.S. I should explain, I didn’t think you were pretending to be Paul Reuter, or indeed conceal your identity. Obviously it would be rather quaint (and Caesaresque) were Reuter to talk about himself in the third person…

  9. P.P.P.S Says:

    Dear Rene.

    Typical reporter has to come back for another story on at least another three occasions, “Oh, by the way, what about…” only joking!

    You will know that I am not Paul via the email address provided…

    Your articles do make me smile though… “I will insist on making a story” I have never known a journalist not to; by the way, you missed out the word “up”.

    The former Amicus section has had some bad press as of late and journalists never seem to write an article on the latest learning centre being opened, or reps saving someone from unfair dismissal, discrimination, accidents, I could go on, but I am sure you know the theme.

    Yes, Paul has being saying that websites, blogs etc do not win elections and he has won three elections in the past without them so he should know!

    If you have been typing in your own name you must be sad, but I have been told that you are ok, so that must make us, by association, both sad…

    Joking apart, it would be a good thing to see all of the election addresses, but be careful about what you print; I have been told that at least one of them may have attracted attention from a legal advisor…!

    Critics have spread tales about Simpson trying to stay on until he is 75, but I believe that they are just that, tales.

    Derek should know that he has had a good innings; he has certainly raised our unions profile during the time that our activists have made and taken our policies forward through their conferences.

    But I also believe that he knows that Paul is a genuine candidate who can build on what he has already achieved and he can take the union forward.

    I am no Paul Reuter, as there is only one, but I have noticed that others have tried to use his language.

    Just follow the blog posts from start to finish on the other sites…

    What do people say about imitation and flattery?

  10. lastreporter Says:


    If you think I’ve made something up, I’d be interested to hear about it.

    As for positive Unite stories, I have recently written about Unite’s bid for recognition at Procter & Gamble, and I’ll be writing more about that as it progresses.



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