Clashes broke out between supporters of rival candidates for the Unite leadership on Monday outside the union’s London headquarters.
Backers of Gerard Coyne had planned a peaceful protest, but the atmosphere became heated when supporters of Len McCluskey, the incumbent general secretary, arrived for a counter-demonstration.
One Coyne supporter claimed he was assaulted, while McCluskey’s backers said the protest was poorly timed given the acquisition of Vauxhall – although its new owners tried to assuage concerns over job losses for Unite members working there on Monday.
The Coyne campaign arrived with life-sized skeletons to highlight “skeletons in Len’s closet”, in a nod to claims the general secretary had borrowed union funds to buy a £700,000 central London flat.
Some of McCluskey’s supporters were seen attempting to remove skeleton masks worn by Coyne campaigners, pulling down placards and using phones to film them.
Coyne, the union’s West Midlands regional secretary, claims McCluskey used Unite funds to finance Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and has increased members’ subscription costs by a total of £10m.
McCluskey’s supporters, wielding placards reading “Beware! Fake news invasion. Coyne campaign beware!”, significantly outnumbered the Coyne team.
One Coyne supporter, a Unite and Labour party member from London who was dressed in a skeleton mask and did not want to give his name, said he was assaulted.
“I was punched. It was clearly assault. They were pushing and shoving and all sorts,” the man said.
“We didn’t come here to cause any harm or any trouble, we came here to prove a point that Len McCluskey is draining Unite.
“I’m a member of Unite and a member of the Labour party and I care dearly about both of them. The direction Len McCluskey’s taking it is unfortunate because he’s taking it away from the members and turning it into a vanity project for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.”
But Richard Allday, a McCluskey supporter and member of Unite’s executive, said: “Coyne’s campaign has stalled. He’s made no headway with the activists within the union so he’s decided to resort to smears. That’s always the mark of a losing campaign.”
The confrontation is the latest turn in a bitter leadership contest that has seen Unite withdraw funding from Labour’s mayoral candidate in the West Midlands, Sîon Simon, over his alleged support for Coyne.
The clashes came as the chief executive of the French company behind Peugeot and Citroën vowed to turn Opel and Vauxhall around without factory closures or job cuts after agreeing to buy General Motors’ lossmaking European arm for €2.2bn (£1.9bn).
Vauxhall employs about 4,600 people at Ellesmere Port and Luton, some of whom are represented by Unite, with a further 20,000 working in the carmaker’s showrooms; they also support 18,000 supply chain jobs.
The protest took place as members of Unite’s executive council were assembling for a three-day meeting at which McCluskey’s use of union funds is expected to be discussed.
Roy Morrall, a Unite member from the West Midlands, said: “We’re coming down to support Gerard Coyne. We are from the West Midlands, we’re all trade unionists, and that’s why we’re here. To support Gerard Coyne and do away with the corruption that’s within Unite.”
Another Coyne supporter, from Solihull, who did not want to give his name, said: “Basically Gerard Coyne wants to make changes at the union. Len McCluskey has been there too long. He’s only in it for the money and we need a change of pace. We need a change in the whole principle of the union. It’s got to stop being so political and more for the members’ workforces.”