Ian Allinson is a workplace activist challenging senior officials Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne in the Unite general secretary election. He describes himself as the grassroots, socialist candidate, and pitches himself as an outsider who did not intend to run until Len McCluskey resigned in December last year, triggering an election that he has said ‘shouldn’t even be happening’.
Joe Hayns interviewed him for Novara Media.
Joe Hayns: Before talking about Unite and your campaign, could you give a sense of trade unionism more generally in the UK. Strikes are at historic lows. Are things really as bad as that suggests?
Ian Allinson: Union strength has been broadly stable for a few years, after serious decline through the 1980s. Around 6.5m people are union members in the UK, which makes them huge compared to political parties and campaign groups.
However, union organisation has retreated into the public sector and small parts of the private sector; they’ve become too weak and passive to prevent large scale restructuring of employment and society in the interests of business and at the expense of workers.
JH: Unite formed from a merging of two unions in 2007. How has it developed since? Has it been only passive?
IA: The initial period after the merger, when we had two joint general secretaries in constant conflict, was really difficult. Since Len McCluskey took over things have stabilised and improved in a number of ways. Unite has been an active and visible part of the industrial and political landscape. However, Unite’s leadership failed some important tests.
The demonstrations and strikes that connected the defence of public sector pensions with opposition to austerity, in 2011, were a high-point of resistance. A very poor deal was proposed by the government which was accepted by some union leaders; Unite opposed the deal, but failed to call any further action at the crucial point. All the momentum drained out of the campaign and the movement suffered a serious set-back.
More recent examples include the failure to call a national demonstration in defence of the NHS during the junior doctors’ strikes, and the pitiful campaign against the repressive Trade Union Act.
JH: By stepping down last December, Len McCluskey triggered an election for General Secretary and, despite those failures of leadership, has attracted support from much of the left-wing of Unite. Is his support of Corbyn part of that? What kind of support is it?
IA: The Corbyn question is important in this election, but not in the way you suggest. Many of those less involved in Unite think McCluskey is a big Corbyn supporter; that’s the dominant media representation, based on the fact McCluskey and Unite did play an important role during the leadership contests.
Those more involved are more sceptical. They know he originally backed [Andy] Burnham rather than Corbyn [as Labour leader]. They understand how McCluskey’s stance on Trident and workers’ freedom of movement has undermined Corbyn. And they know how unhelpful his repeated statements about a question-mark over Corbyn’s leadership are. They know McCluskey is a fair-weather friend to Corbyn.
The other factor in the picture is the right-wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, who is backed by the Labour right. Some members believe that despite all his faults McCluskey is best placed to defeat Coyne. Without that left challenge McCluskey would be pulled to the right in response to Coyne, undermining Corbyn further.
JH: Is there a chance, though that a second left-wing candidate would split the vote, allowing Coyne in?
IA: If McCluskey really thought the threat from the right was so great, he wouldn’t have triggered this unnecessary election.
Without a candidate opposing the status quo from the left, Coyne would hoover up votes from every dissatisfied member, despite offering no answers, just as Trump did against Clinton.
JH: Last week, 332 MPs voted against Labour’s amendment to protect EU workers post-Brexit. Clearly, this is a dangerous time. Where do you disagree with McCluskey over migration and anti-racism?
IA: After the referendum I moved an emergency motion at the Unite conference defending free movement. Unite’s current leadership opposed that in favour of a motion which said this was a “difficult question”, an abdication of leadership.
In November McCluskey argued that employers should only be able to hire workers from abroad if they have union agreements, as a safeguard against downward pressure on wages. I think this gives dangerous ground to the right.
If we had the power to deliver such a demand, we should be insisting that employers only hire anyone at all if they have union agreements. In reality, unions have failed to win agreements for most of the economy, so this is a call to exclude workers from abroad – whatever that means – from most jobs.
JH: So, the current trade union leadership are triangulating anti-migrant sentiment. What would you do differently?
IA: The idea of unions trying to exclude certain people from jobs or industries to keep up wages is not new. Only a few decades ago some unions played a shameful role in excluding women, supposedly to protect the jobs and wages of men. Such strategies are a disaster. Unions’ strength depends on their ability to unite workers against employers and government. We undermine this solidarity at our peril. Removing the ability for migrants to work legally does not remove their need to work – it forces them to work outside the legal economy and blocks their access to support and legal rights. At best it accelerates the very downward pressure on wages that McCluskey hopes to prevent. At worst it leads to tragedies like the Morcambe Bay cockle pickers.
Increasing the exclusion, fear and vulnerability of immigrants is the last thing a union should be doing. We should be helping them organise. We should take inspiration from the victory at Fawley oil refinery last year, where workers shunned the ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ slogan and won equal pay for workers irrespective of nationality.