Coyne v Unite judgment: a litany of humiliation for ‘improper’ right-winger

coyne oil
Gerard Coyne, former leadership challenger whose legal case against Unite has been thrown out

As the SKWAWKBOX broke on Friday, Gerard Coyne’s legal challenge to the result of last year’s Unite general secretary election failed utterly – as the SKWAWKBOX predicted nine months ago – when the Certification Officer, retired judge Jeffrey Burke, struck down all nine of Coyne’s remaining points. A tenth point had already been rejected outright in the first phase of the case.

Laughably, the dishonest right-wing Labour site ‘Red Roar’, which supported Coyne, scrabbled to find something to salvage and could only come up with a claim that Burke had “confirmed Unite members were denied a free and fair election“.

But Burke made clear in his 94-page judgment that he was simply referring to the natural advantage enjoyed by any incumbent. Burke found McCluskey’s position entirely legal and justified – and ruled that Coyne’s concept of a ‘level playing field’ had strayed far from realistic territory, not least because McCluskey’s campaign enthused large groups of people to work on his behalf.

Many of the unimpressive Coyne’s complaints had already been rejected at various levels, but Coyne – whose team had boasted of having plenty of cash and patronage – kept flogging a dead horse.

Coyne also attempted to appeal Judge Burke’s first-phase finding that Unite was perfectly entitled to call the early election. Burke had called his complaint ‘unreasonable’ – but the appeal judge was brutal, calling Coyne’s case

inconsistent… confusing and weak.

Burke was little kinder in his findings regarding Coyne’s remaining nine points, stating that Coyne and his campaign:

  • had conducted an improper campaign based on abundance of personal attacks
  • was unconvincing in his evidence – as the SKWAWKBOX had observed
  • had breached data laws and election rules
  • had distributed campaign material containing serious false accusations against rival Len McCluskey to mislead Unite members
  • had made untrue claims about McCluskey’s pension and salary and about a London flat Unite and McCluskey purchased jointly for his general secretary duties

Perhaps most damningly, Burke indicated that Gerard Coyne’s motivation in his at least some of his complaints was to divert attention from his own actions:

coyne head off.png
I understand both GC’s desire to head off any investigation into his campaign’s gaining access to branch secretary data by complaining about both LM’s [McCluskey’s] activities and HB’s [Howard Beckett’s] alleged partiality
Highlights, or lowlights, of some of Burke’s other findings – damning of Coyne and exonerating the union – are below.

An improper campaign

During the course of the campaign, an anonymous leaflet was distributed to all of Unite’s branch secretaries, which can only have been done using data that Coyne’s campaign was not entitled to have. The leaflet, which consisted of highly personalised attacks on Len McCluskey, generated a number of complaints from Unite members.

Judge Burke found the content of the mailing improper:

the proper conduct of a GS election did not contemplate such personal attacks.

Coyne denied any involvement in the sending of the leaflet, although he admitted to having received the data. The judge left the matter of his involvement open, but if such ‘personal attacks’ are improper in an anonymous leaflet, the same will apply in tweets and official campaign material – and Burke also found them there.

In his findings, Burke refers both the personal attacks put out on social media by Coyne and his supporters and to a booklet, Unite Herald (UH) – of which some 100,000 were distributed by Coyne’s campaign.Burke notes that about 50% of UH’s pages were devoted to personal attacks on Len McCluskey and at several points in his judgment refers to their demonstrably untrue nature. Toward the end of the document, he states:

[Senior Unite official Gail Cartmail] was, I conclude, entitled to the view… that Unite Herald contained false or misleading information relating to a member or the union’s activities which had been made recklessly and in breach of rule 5(2) of Unite’s rules.

The flat and pension

The centrepiece of the Coyne campaign’s attacks on Len McCluskey consisted of allegations about Unite’s alleged loan – or even gift – of over £400,000 for the purchase of a flat in London and of claims that McCluskey was both receiving a pension from Unite and a full general secretary salary.

Regarding the flat, Coyne agreed, under cross-examination, that his accusations would have led voters to conclude that McCluskey was enjoying a ‘grace and favour’ benefit for life.

In fact, the entirely proper arrangement with the union meant that if he ceased to become general secretary he would either have to buy out the union’s share at market value or else sell the flat and repay the same proportion of the sale value as the union had invested in the purchase value – sixty percent. The union would therefore fully benefit from any increase in sale value.

As Burke put it:

In effect, as GC agreed in cross-examination, it was telling the reader that LM had a grace and favour flat in which he could live for life if he so wished. The truth was substantially different.

On the pension, McCluskey had in fact taken a cut in salary to offset the value of his pension and was not enjoying any double benefit.

Coyne had attempted to claim that the union’s decision to take action to prevent more of the leaflets being distributed was evidence of Unite interfering in the election. Burke ruled that it was entirely justified in acting to stop the distribution of false, damaging and potentially defamatory information.

Data breaches

As noted above, Judge Burke considered that many of Coyne’s complaints were motivated by a desire to ‘head off’ investigations into his own data breach – but that Coyne had obtained data to which he had no entitlement is beyond reasonable dispute, as he had admitted having it.

Coyne attempted to explain away the breach by claiming that, while election rules did not allow him to have the data when he was a candidate, he was allowed to have it before he was confirmed as one. Burke gave this fallacy the treatment it deserved:

The argument was put forward to explain why, in receiving the data from the December 2016 download, the GC campaign had done nothing wrong. In my view, ballot guideline 6 did not so permit. If ballot guidelines 16 and 17 did not apply at all until after successful nomination, guideline 13 would have had no function; the structure of the ballot guidelines, whereby details of the branch secretary of a branch would be provided only to a candidate who had been nominated by that branch, would be undermined if a prospective nominee could have obtained details of all branch secretaries before the nomination process was completed.

But Burke also referred to another data breach. As reported at the time by the SKWAWKBOX, the judge noted that:

local Labour Party officials in the West Midlands had asked GC’s team to assist them to obtain support for Siôn Simon and, in return for such assistance, it was agreed that questions in the phone calls could be asked about GC’s candidacy for the GS position and that it was entirely proper for members of the Labour Party to work in cooperation with GC in that way. GC told HB that he believed that the script had been authorised by the Labour Party“.

However, data protection laws allow no such decision to share data without the permission of the ‘data subject’.

Coyne’s barrister attempted to claim that “there was no proper basis for dragging the GC campaign into it” – but Burke found that Coyne’s campaign had agreed it with Siôn Simon’s team. It’s hard to see how any stronger basis for including Coyne and his team in the investigation could exist.

Burke concluded that Unite was entirely justified in treating this issue as a serious breach that it had to investigate and was not doing so in order to undermine Coyne’s campaign.

A third serious data breach by the Coyne campaign also came to light when the Information Commissioner ruled that Coyne had received information – as the SKWAWKBOX had already exclusively exposed well over a year before while the campaign was still underway – from the campaign of former Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith against data protection laws:

coyne smoke gun.png

By contrast, Burke ruled that Unite was completely exonerated of unlawful data use:

There was, I conclude, no use by Unite, as opposed to United Left of its own database to enable the emails to be sent…

the evidence simply does not prove any such breach

Evidence – or lack of it

Jeffrey Burke’s judgment underlines on multiple the weakness – or complete absence – of evidence for Coyne’s allegations:

Because of the lack of evidence and paucity of argument on this issue.

there was no evidence that Mr Turner or other senior officials at his level campaigned on behalf of LM in 2016/7 during Unite working hours as opposed to out of those hours.

there is, however, no evidence before me from anybody who was so deterred

I should add that GC, in his oral evidence, said that, in the case of the non-functioning branches about which he complained, he did not know of any member who had said that members were told by the appointed officer to nominate LM; and there is no evidence before me to that effect.

To some extent, my resolution of this issue depends on my view of the evidence of GC and AM; and I have to say that, in that respect, I found the evidence of GC, when ‘pressed’ in cross-examination, to be unconvincing.

I do not find it at all surprising that the EC was not asked to permit the appointment of an officer as branch secretary every time that happened; there is, indeed, no evidence that the EC was ever so asked. If it had been, I would have expected GC’s side to have produce evidence to that effect.

There is no direct evidence to support those allegations.

The evidence that HB was biased in favour of LM is, in my judgment, flimsy at best.

I do not see any evidence of partiality.

I feel bound to say that I was not impressed by [JM’s] evidence; he did not appear to me to wish to answer questions fully and freely and was distinctly unhelpful about the circumstances in which he came to leave his position

MA said that, in the latter campaign, she had no evidence that the conduct she complained of in the former campaign had again taken place.

there is no evidence which enables me to find that the McCluskey campaign used union facilities as opposed to their own facilities to print and distribute their campaign material.

There are no witness statements put forward on behalf of GC in which a member who was entitled to vote says that he did not get a ballot paper or, having not got a ballot paper as expected, he did not take advantage of the helpline; nor is there any such evidence that a ballot paper arrived too late.

and so on.

A senior Unite official described the judgment as ‘a total victory’ for the union.

SKWAWKBOX comment:

The overall impression given by Jeffrey Burke’s judgment echoes what this blog has said of Coyne’s persistent attempt to overturn a democratic result he doesn’t like: a case brought out of a delusional sense of entitlement and righteousness without – and often in spite of – the evidence.

Perhaps the best example of the quality of thinking behind the whole sorry venture can be seen in Coyne’s attempt to claim that the union must have been working to undermine his campaign because, when one of his supporters received an email she didn’t think should have been sent to her, her complaints were ignored.

She had been sending them to an incorrect email address.

Coyne’s original challenge was motivated by a desire on the part of the Labour right to remove a key figure supporting Jeremy Corbyn – and his attempt was clearly supported by that faction, as demonstrated by, among other things, the decisions of the Siôn Simon and Owen Smith’s campaigns to unlawfully share data with Coyne’s.

Similar can be said about his stubborn refusal to abandon a clearly unfounded legal action against the result.

Both failed abysmally. In large part that failure occurred because of a lack of substance and ideas, as well as a lack of scruple about false accusations and the abundance of enthusiasm and effort contributed by supporters of his opponent.

Coyne’s case is, therefore, a perfect example of the dire situation and intellectual bankruptcy of the Labour right – and of the reasons the Labour left is in the ascendant in both party and country.

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  1. Looks like the case was only pursued because Coyne was awash with someone’s cash, someone who didn’t mind losing a lot of cash when there was little chance of winning. Strange.

  2. The question is who’s cash? Where did it come from?
    It is almost impossible to believe that it came from Unite members. It is, amazingly, not impossible that the money came from the public purse, perhaps even a foreign government.
    Most likely however it came from a wealthy businessman or a capitalist organisation.
    If Unite rules do not require persons in Coyne’s position to divulge details of their financing they should do.

  3. I reckon it was tesco gave Coyne the mystery financial backing…After all, those many dead horses Coyne had flogged could be used in their own-brand lasagnes 😛

  4. Am I oversensitive, I cannot understand the brass neck of Coyne. He, surely, must feel utterly embarrassed and humiliated each time he comes into contact with a Unite member. No shame, some people.

  5. My goodness! A gift of £400,000 would transform my life. I wouldn’t waste it on a flat in London.

  6. “The overall impression given by Jeffrey Burke’s judgment echoes what this blog has said of Coyne’s persistent attempt to overturn a democratic result he doesn’t like.”

    Hillary Benn, from whom we have, fortunately, heard little lately, also revealed his contempt for elections some two years ago:

    “I will give my full support to whoever is elected if someone other than Jeremy is chosen by the members in September.”

    Hillary Benn, 19 July 2016, The Today Programme:

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