Two fiercely competitive frontrunners, disputed figures, cries of “bollocks” – the election for the next leader of the Unite union has it all. And reports back from the TUC Congress suggest that rivalry and policy are being doled out in roughly equal measure. Here, behind the News of the World headlines, is what is going on.
Les Bayliss predictably caused a slight sensation on the eve of Congress when a newspaper article appeared quoting him as criticising British Airways cabin crew for their planned 12-day strike over Christmas, saying: “If I am general secretary of Unite there will NEVER be any strikes called over Christmas”, and “Public sector strikes will only deprive the vulnerable of services the Tories want to cut. We’ll be doing the bad guy’s job for him. Strikes will also turn the real victims, our members, into the villains.”
And yes, he did actually say all that. Not to the News of the World, but in a speech – the full version is on his website. Bayliss’ argument is that strikes in the 1980s were counter-productive, lost sympathy for unions and encouraged the introduction of laws to curb their power.
Unfortunately for Bayliss, some Unite members assumed that he had given an interview to the NoW. “You’re kidding me!” a senior source said when told of the article, adding: “To use News International as a mouthpiece, whose owner sacked six thousand members in the move to Wapping, is quite a disgrace”. Fair or not, it’s the impression some have got.
However, the line peddled by the NoW’s David Wooding – “He appealed to the moderate majority to stand up to hardliners hell-bent on leading them over the cliff edge” – is a fair summary of Bayliss’ pitch to Unite members, particularly the skilled professionals that he is targeting. Many of these are far from dyed-in the-wool lefties; nearly a third of Unite members intend to vote Conservative.
Rival Len McCluskey’s rhetoric is scarcely less colourful. The day after the NoW article, speaking to a plenary Congress session on employment rights, and calling for resistance to the restrictive use of union laws, he said – no, he shouted: “Let me be clear again, especially to anyone in Unite who understands the cuts won’t be stopped by pandering to the Murdoch press. In the words of Henry V, he that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart.” “Not too over the top, then,” sniggered a Unite official next to me as he spoke.
So, anyway – now that nominations have closed, and the ballot begins next month, who is ahead?
According to McCluskey’s website, it’s him, and according to a Financial Times piece too – except that the piece’s author, Brian Groom, didn’t actually want it published; he thought the figures weren’t solid. McCluskey is claiming over 650 nominations from branches compared to (he says) Bayliss and Jerry Hicks, who are unlikely to get more than 100 nominations apiece. Nominations don’t count as votes, but they do help influence members and allow candidates to receive funding from branches.
Word among McCluskey’s supporters is that he does indeed have well over 600 nominations. Meanwhile, friends of Bayliss dismiss the figures as “bollocks”. They aren’t official – true enough – and they’re two weeks out of date. the complaint goes. Since then, Bayliss has picked up nominations, I am told. I took this rebuttal back to camp McCluskey. “Bollocks”, I was told. Hmm.
Jerry Hicks, however, does agree with McCluskey’s analysis: he is telling supporters that he has won 102 branch nominations, as well as 35 workplaces, and he thinks he is close to Bayliss, ahead of Gail Cartmail and behind McCluskey. Go figure.
Official figures for nominations will be released soon. Watch this space…