Andy McSmith: A union in name only: why ballot blunders threaten Unite's resolve

Our writer finds members despondent at leaders' mistakes

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It has been a quiet few weeks in the offices of Britain's biggest union, Unite, while its abrasive political director, Charlie Whelan, has been away helping with Labour's election campaign. But that was a lull that could not last.

Unite must now decide whether or how to deploy its financial muscle in the Labour Party leadership election. It also has a leadership election of its own looming and, for the second time in five months, it has been told by a High Court that it does not know how to hold a strike ballot without breaching the law.

It has caused some bemusement that a union so closely tied to the Labour Party should want to hold a strike that will provoke so much outrage among air travellers. Twenty days' disruption by British Airways cabin crews – which could still happen despite the union's setbacks in court – will make the name of Unite so notorious that it could threaten to be the kiss of death to whichever Labour leadership candidate the union endorses. By the same token, last December's planned strike, which would have meant misery for anyone planning to fly away for Christmas, could have done untold damage to Labour's election prospects, had it not been barred by a High Court. And yet Unite is Labour's biggest financial backer.

The key to this apparent contradiction is that Unite is so large and fragmented that a more apt name for it would be Disunite. It is not a monolith but an amalgam of unions brought together in a two-headed monster run by competing general secretaries, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson.

One of its many components is the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa), to which 90 per cent of BA's cabin crew belong and whose members have twice voted overwhelmingly to strike because of their long running dispute with British Airways.

"The Bassa tail is wagging the Unite dog," BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, complained in yesterday's Times. He added: "I urge Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson to assert their authority."

That assumes that the general secretaries have an authority to assert. Bassa is a self-contained unit within the conglomeration, with its own history and culture. BA's cabin crews see Unite as an outside body paid to give professional back up to Bassa's shop stewards, and since that advice had led to two unfavourable court judgements, some are wondering whether they are getting their money's worth.

"I feel totally let down by Unite," one of the contributors to a private internet forum for Bassa members wrote after Monday's court injunction. "You would think after the first injunction, they would scour every inch of the legalities of holding ballots and taking industrial action. My question is, can I/we sue Unite?"

Another commented: "It would be nice if just for once, a Unite boss actually apologised rather than passing the blame as always and getting indignant. I'd like Woodley to explain how with such an enormous salary and perks... he still manages to mess this up – again."

Although most contributors are fiercely loyal to Bassa, some are ready to give up in despair. "I can't take this anymore," one wrote. "This is the end for me. It's over. Can't you see it? We've lost, and we always will. Honest I cannot fight any longer. I give up. Sorry."

Another wrote: "I have been a big supporter of the industrial action, for which I have lost 12 days' pay and staff travel. I am not sure if I can carry on either. I feel very let down and have just about had enough. Can I be bothered to vote again? Can I trust Unite?"

But for many of Unite's full time officials, what really matters right now is not the BA dispute, nor the future of the Labour Party, but who will be their new general secretary when Mr Woodley, 62, and Mr Simpson, 65, retire and their posts are combined. The election is due this year.

Unite's assistant general secretary, Len McCluskey, a former Liverpool docker, is the best known of the potential runners. He is tough, articulate and left wing, and has 'Old Labour' written through him, and would be Tony Woodley's choice.

However, Mr McCluskey's background is in the TGWU, which amalgamated with the engineering union Amicus to form Unite. Amicus has the more efficient political machine and a huge section of retired members, who are eligible to vote in an election for general secretary. This may give the edge to Mr Simpson's protégé, Les Bayliss, another assistant general secretary, a duller character from the backroom who would probably trouble the Labour leadership less than Mr McCluskey.

With this election looming, there will not be much spare energy inside Unite to devote to the Labour's leadership but is is assumed that Charlie Whelan will be intent on delivering victory for Ed Balls, who was Gordon Brown's economic adviser when Mr Whelan was Brown's personal spin doctor, and is expected to announce his candidacy for the Labour leadership today.

It is sometimes assumed that Unite has a vast block vote to hand to its favoured candidate. This is not true. Union members vote individually, by post, and the support of a union boss does not automatically deliver any votes. In the 2007 deputy leadership, Unite backed Jon Cruddas, who came third. Even so, Unite's support guarantees that its chosen candidate will be able to fight a well-funded campaign, and that hundreds of thousand of Unite members will receive communications from their union in his support.

"When Charlie Whelan wants to deliver for Ed Balls, a lot of other people in Unite are going to be thinking that the most important thing in the world is the general secretary election. They won't be worrying about the Labour leadership election, so they'll probably just go along with Charlie," one insider said.

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