Unite member and former Corbyn staffer Phil Bevin has seen the left and its workings up close. He writes that putting forward only the least offensive and most accommodating candidate will lead to the defeat that its advocates say they fear most
Before I found myself in a minor role within Jeremy Corbyn’s LOTO, I worked my way through a PhD, specialising in narrative and rhetoric, so I like to think I know how to spot good (and bad) arguments.
There has been a lot of pressure on some ‘left’ candidates in the Unite General Secretary Election to stand down and fall behind a unified ‘anyone but Coyne’ campaign. I decided to write this piece because I believe the ‘anyone but Coyne’ argument will lead to failure because it is an uninspiring message that will do nothing to motivate people to turn out and vote.
A ‘self-fulfilling story of reaction and defeat’
I am also concerned that parts of the left have become trapped in their own self-fulfilling story of reaction and defeat; the idea that the left can’t advance, so it must retrench and defend what it still has by appeasing the right; this is a narrative that accepts right wing dominance and left wing decline.
Finally, and most importantly, I think it’s important to stand up for the principle that people should vote for their favoured candidate, which is essential in any democracy.
The rationale for the united “anyone but Coyne” candidate is thisin Unite’s previous General Secretary election – which was a three way fight between Coyne, McCluskey and Allinson – Coyne ran McCluskey close on a low 12% turnout. I think the argument that having three left candidates on the ballot risks splitting the left wing vote and letting Coyne in is a valid one. But it isn’t the only valid argument and to me politics is more the art of rhetoric and persuasion than a science; there is no mathematical formula for predicting election results, which is why, however hard they try to be accurate, opinion polls get it wrong so regularly.
When it comes to analysing the race to succeed Len McCluskey, precedents can be found to evidence a range of possible outcomes, including [Cornish Damo] Damian Willey’s view that having three “left candidates” may make for an engaging, more democratic contest that favours the left, a position I tend to agree with.
Having three candidates from the ‘left’ on the ballot will only let Coyne win if the circumstances play out as they did last time around. But there’s no guarantee of this because every election is unique, influenced by the specific context in which it occurs. That there are four candidates in this contest is already a massive shift that will change the dynamics of the race and the defensive, ‘ABC’ strategy also carries its own set of considerable risks.
When candidates don’t have positive stories to tell through their candidacy, they can become too reliant on attacking opponents. This sometimes ends up with a disastrous ‘project fear’ type of campaign that served the Labour right so poorly during the Labour leadership elections of 2015 and 2016. Or the risk is that a candidate on the defensive becomes too scared to say much at all, which arguably served the left badly in the 2020 Labour leadership election and appears to be playing out among a couple of candidates now.
The other major risk for the ‘ABC’ strategy is that it rests on the assumption that there is a single candidate entitled to left wing votes, even if they haven’t actually won them themselves. I plan to vote for Beckett and I will not be transferring my vote to any other candidate because I can’t bring myself to support anyone who is even rumoured to be considering collaborating with Starmer, who I believe to be the most reactionary of right-wingers. There are probably many more like me.
‘Elections don’t have to mean a choice between the bad and the even worse’
If we choose to believe that we can’t change our circumstances and just accept the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument, then we might as well all just give up and leave the neoliberals to bicker over how many crumbs they’ll hand down to us from the top table. The whole reason we are here is surely because we believe that right wing policies don’t have to dominate forever; and one thing that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour showed us is that elections don’t have to mean a choice between the bad and the even worse.
From my own personal point of view, the only candidate who has shown themselves to be willing to shake up the status quo and challenge the establishment is Howard Beckett. To be honest, I haven’t heard much from the others. Beckett’s campaign is based on the idea that Unite’s membership can be increased, and the union’s reach expanded.
It is an exciting prospect.
Unite is my union. I don’t want it to be an organisation that stays quiet on the existential issues we face for fear of upsetting Johnson and Starmer’s establishment; I want to be part of a union that reaches out to new people, welcomes them in and which fights for our rights, while building the infrastructure that will allow us to transform our country into a far better place. Change won’t happen unless we fight for it.
Phil Bevin’s article ends here.
As Skwawkbox was editing this article for publication, the comment below happened to come in from Seán Mac Eachaidh, another Unite member, echoing Phil Bevin’s thoughts – either a huge coincidence or an indication that such thinking and intent is widespread:
Beckett is the one man the British establishment, the polite cosy comfortable and cosy labour right who are in the wrong party, do not want. Steve I won’t be voting for anybody else under any circumstances. Howard Beckett facing down the dark forces and standing his ground is how it was, how it was supposed to stay and how it ought to be with all unions. F*ck Blair, Kinnock, Watson, et al. I’m sticking with the Irish Ragged Trousered Philanthropists like Howard Beckett and [Ragged Trouser author] Bob Noonan.
The timorous assumption by supporters of other candidates that ‘there can be only one’ is already gifting the right-winger – the most reactionary and establishment-friendly candidate imaginable – an opportunity to pitch himself as the insurgent in this contest, a blunder that is inexcusable.
We’ve already seen in the Keir Starmer disaster that offering voters a lacklustre candidate on the assumption that they will choose him over an appalling right-winger leads to catastrophe. People are looking for courage, real vision and fire – and on those criteria there really is only one candidate in this contest. Trying to rule out the one left candidate with those qualities is a road to the disaster its advocates claim to want to avoid.
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