Last Saturday’s special meeting of the United Left – the
broad left grouping in the two-million strong UNITE union – ended in a split
after supporters of left-winger Jerry Hicks were excluded on spurious grounds.
The reason for the meeting was to choose the left’s candidate to run for
General Secretary in 2010.
Before the meeting began, the proceedings were marred by
heavy-handed tactics on the part of meeting stewards who had been instructed to
refuse entry to anyone “not on the list”. Long-standing left-wingers were
turned away on the door after being told they were not recognized. This
included activists from Swansea and formers employees from Rolls Royce in
Bristol. One worker, who had been an active trade unionist for 39 years was
refused admittance for a range of spurious reasons. Instead of a welcome,
people were treated with suspicion and contempt if their faces didn’t fit.
While some were told they could not register as they had arrived late, others
were told by organisers they would be denied access despite being on time. In
addition many had decided not to attend after they had been told in advance
that they would not be welcome at the meeting.
This bureaucratic behaviour was challenged by Jerry Hicks
who spoke at the start of the meeting. He stated that if these workers were
being excluded through no fault of their own, then he would not want to
participate in an undemocratic meeting and walked out. He was followed by about
30 supporters who, together with those who had been excluded, decided to organise
a meeting of their own.
In the meantime, a row broke out in the main meeting which
then narrowly voted to admit all those excluded into the meeting. This news was
transmitted to those outside, who then proceeded jubilantly to enter the main
hall. However, after some protests, the chair decided to rule that while
everyone could attend the meeting, only those who had previously registered
could vote. This decision reduced the meeting to a farce. This led to the
second walk out by Jerry and supporters.
Those who had been excluded and those who had walked out in
solidarity convened a meeting in one of the side rooms in the venue. Speaker
after speaker, who gave their place of work and length of time in the union
movement, recounted how they were denied access to the main hall on the most
flimsy of excuses. Many were UNITE stewards and branch officials in
engineering, construction, manufacturing and other sectors. A wide-ranging
discussion was held about the problems of the union, how a genuine left should
operate, and which way forward for the left. While everyone was keen for Jerry
to stand as a left rank-and-file candidate in the election for General
Secretary, this question was left for further consideration and consultation.
It became clear to those present that the real reason for the Manchester
meeting was not to hold a democratic selection meeting, but to ensure a rigged
meeting would simply rubber stamp a predetermined nomination.
In the meantime, the hustings for a candidate was taking
place in the main hall between Len McCluskey, the favoured candidate of the old
TGWU bureaucracy and full-time officials, and Rob Williams, the rank-and-file
convener at Linemar in Swansea. In the vote, McCluskey got 170 votes to 49 for
The bulk of those voting for Williams would have also
supported Jerry Hicks. With Hicks refusing to participate in a conference where
his supporters had been excluded and told not to attend, then, with sufficient
support he could put himself forward as a credible rank-and-file left
candidate, one who had obtained 40% of the vote in his recent challenge for
General Secretary for Amicus. He is certainly very well placed in the new
election for General Secretary of UNITE next year.
The United Left has become not a broad left, but a narrow
undemocratic left, seeking to exclude those who pose a challenge to their
pre-conceived decisions. The fact that they regarded new participants with
hostility is a real indication of where they stand and why they will never be
able to build a genuine democratic left organisation, let alone build a
fighting union based on the interests of the membership.
On this basis, Jerry Hicks should announce his
nomination and start the campaign for a genuine left General Secretary of