Who should be Unite’s next General Secretary?

Unite has begun the process to elect Len McCluskey’s successor. Campaigning is underway, branches and some workplaces start making nominations from 6 May, and voting begins in July. rs21 members in Unite argue that none of the candidates is ideal, but for critical support for Sharon Graham.

Unite the union | © Andrew Skudder/Flickr

The leadership of Unite matters, as we argued in an article about the contest last July. The General Secretary wields enormous power within Unite, is the main public face of the union, and shapes relationships with the Labour Party, other unions, the TUC and other social movements.

The election comes at a critical time as employers and the government want workers to pay the price of the Covid crisis and climate breakdown continues. Unite is involved in several disputes against fire and rehire, including the continuous strikes at Go Ahead buses in Manchester and Goodlord in London. Many workers face unemployment as furlough ends and the economic crisis caused by Covid unfolds.

Despite the obvious need for resistance, the truth is that the level of working class militancy remains low. The modest rise in trade Union membership has not turned the tide. The most recent public Unite paying membership figure (1,141,208 for 2019) was a decline from 1,152,609 in 2018 and 1,164,134 in 2017. And this was before Unite members were hit hard by the pandemic. Workplace organisation is often hollow and strikes remain rare.

The current election takes place in the context of a long-term decline in the engagement of members in our union. This has led to a democratic deficit across the trade union movement including in Unite’s last General Secretary election, which had a turnout of only 12.2%. United Left, the dominant faction in the union, has contributed to this disengagement, supporting a reduction in the frequency of workplace and branch elections, raising the nomination threshold for General Secretary candidates and defeating moves away from First Past The Post which would have addressed concerns that a divided left vote could allow a right-winger to win with minority support.

It is therefore disappointing, but not surprising, that there is no rank-and-file candidate in this election. Instead, it is an election between three senior Unite officials and a sacked senior Unite official.

In 2017 the right-winger Gerard Coyne represented a credible threat from the right of the union, largely because his position was inflated by support from the right-wing of the Labour Party and the media who saw defeating Len McCluskey as a way to undermine and remove Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour leadership. Coyne hopes to stand again this time, but having been out of his Regional Secretary job for several years, not facing an incumbent, with the Labour right and media less focused on the election and the nomination threshold raised it is unclear whether Coyne will be able to secure enough nominations to get on the ballot paper. If he did, defeating him would be very important.

The remaining three candidates all claim to be on the left of the union. Steve Turner is backed by the United Left, although Howard Beckett disputes the validity of the vote to endorse him. Beckett set up a campaign grouping called Unite Unity Left and has so far sought to distinguish himself through articulating radical political statements, including in relation to the internal battles in the Labour Party. Whilst Beckett’s campaign has the virtue of articulating clear and often radical political sentiments, it lacks a clear strategy to build the industrial base of Unite. Sharon Graham’s campaign, focussed on workplace organising, has the virtue of prioritising rejuvenating the union’s industrial capacity through organising, providing greater union resources for shop stewards and a focus on the workplace. While Graham recognises the importance of politics and includes political action in her organising and leverage campaigns, a General Secretary election campaign without clear positions on issues from climate change to Palestine to Labour is a cause for concern for how she would act in office. Graham has created a Workers Unite group to support her and her supporters include many who were formerly in the United Left.

It is hard for anyone who has been a senior official during Unite’s decline to inspire confidence that they will make the radical changes needed to reinvigorate our union. In the absence of a strong rank and file candidate, members are faced with a choice between three senior officers, each of whom has strengths and weaknesses.

As socialists with a rank and file orientation to organising at work, we recognise that strong workplace organisation and workers’ collective self-activity are the bedrock for working class power, but that without socialist organisation independent of trade unions, whose function includes both resistance and accommodation to capital, state intervention can derail even the strongest workers’ movement.

On balance, Sharon Graham’s focus on building workplace power offers the most potential for increasing workers’ self-activity and building power. This in turn creates the most fertile ground for socialist politics, but is clear that we will not be able to rely on Sharon Graham to argue clearly for them. Unite members will need to organise independently if we are to win principled positions on the important questions facing workers, rather than accommodating to short-term sectional interests. Socialists should continue to raise key political issues such as climate and just transition from destructive industries and demand that Graham pins her political colours to her mast.

We recognise that some Unite members who were enthused by Corbyn, and whose focus remains on electoral politics rather than building power in workplaces and communities, will be attracted by Beckett’s political radicalism. But given that there is no realistic prospect of an electoral breakthrough for the left in the near future, it would be a huge mistake to prioritise this over building workers’ own collective power.

To put it simply, it is easier to inject radical politics into an industrially strong union than it is to develop industrial strength in a politically radical union, especially because radical politics is inextricably tied to the democratic engagement and empowerment of the union rank-and-file which depends on industrial strength in the first place.

Our critical support for the Sharon Graham campaign will not stop us asking difficult questions or expressing disagreements, but we will work within the campaign to raise these challenges and organise to win nominations and votes. The three-way fracturing of the United Left opens the possibility for the development of networks of rank and file activists committed to building working class power and fighting for radical change. That, even more than the result of this important election, will be decisive in the long term.

Details of the election can be found on the Unite website

rs21 approached all three candidates who claim to be on the left, seeking interviews. Steve Turner declined. Read our interview with Howard Beckett here. We plan to publish an interview with Sharon Graham in the coming days.

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