Voting opens for Unite’s General Secretary

Ballot papers for the Unite general secretary election are being delivered this week and voting will end on 23rd August. rs21 members in Unite explain why they are urging a vote for Sharon Graham.

Three candidates are standing: Sharon Graham, Steve Turner and Gerard Coyne.

rs21 is supporting Sharon Graham’s campaign, because it is focussed on workplace organising and is prioritising rejuvenating the union’s industrial power through organising and providing greater union resources for shop stewards. We agree with Sharon Graham’s assertion that Unite needs a programme of urgent renewal. Power in the workplace is the foundation of political power too. Graham is the only candidate not committed to strengthening the regionalisation of the union, which suits some full time officials but hamstrings members with national or multinational employers. Her campaign is backed by many of those who have been fighting back, including the branches at Go North West buses and BA Mixed Fleet, and the Construction Rank and File.

Gerard Coyne is supported by the right-wing of the Labour Party; Peter Mandelson has described a Coyne victory as key to eliminating the influence of the left within the Labour Party. Coyne is a threat to the effectiveness of trade union organising and it would become more challenging to organise as members of Unite under his leadership. Coyne is committed to a partnership approach of working with employers which would make it even more difficult to take action. He supports a service model of trade union organisation, a model in which members are not involved in the organisation of the union, only turning to it when they have a problem to be resolved on an individual basis. Ultimately the service model leads to disengagement and passivity and fundamentally doesn’t work; winning improvements to wages and working conditions requires workers to be active. Coyne would work alongside Starmer despite Labour’s awful policies on many key issues for trade unionists. The democracy review promised by Coyne would be likely to increase member passivity and make it harder for the left to organise. Coyne would make it more difficult for Unite to show solidarity and offer financial support to social movements.

Since Coyne received enough nominations to get on the ballot, there have been calls for the left to Unite behind one candidate to stop him. While this would have been desirable, many of these calls are from supporters of Steve Turner who see them as a way to bolster his support. Turner secured the most branch nominations and is the candidate supported by the United Left faction. Much of Turner’s support is motivated primarily by wanting to stop a Coyne victory. In addition he has the overwhelming support of the union’s full time officers. He represents continuity for the union bureaucracy.

The fourth candidate, Howard Beckett, stood down and publicly backed Steve Turner’s campaign. Since Sharon Graham has refused to stand down herself she has been subject to misogynist attacks that should be condemned by anyone within the trade union movement.

A Coyne victory would be a setback, but the calls to unite behind Turner are misguided. Turner is a continuity candidate in a union that needs to change. Unite needs to support workers to organise in their workplaces. Our union is not democratic, powerful, radical or militant enough for the challenges workers face. Bureaucratic barriers prevent ordinary members from organising. Paid officials are not accountable to members. We need a union that enables members to act and organise; this means we need our union to go in a different direction. The election of Turner won’t stop the rot, in fact, as Turner places more emphasis on partnership working and compromise, it may exacerbate the problems. In a recent interview he said “ a lot of our business is done, in the evenings, in a coffee shop somewhere, just having that break and building a relationship.” We should be clear that doing business in coffee shops excludes ordinary shop stewards and members. Steve Turner is slow to challenge Keir Starmer and the Labour leadership which is a worrying tendency as Labour moves to the centre.

Steve Turner is supported by the United Left, the largest faction within Unite. In 2017 Len McCluskey was the United Left candidate and won the election, but McCluskey’s vote fell from 144,570 in 2013 to 59,067 and the turnout in 2017 was only 12.2%. This election is being contested in a period where much of the membership feel disengaged. The United Left has contributed to this disengagement by supporting the reduction in workplace and branch elections, raising the nomination threshold to stand as General Secretary and opposing a move away from First Past The Post which would have avoided the issue of splitting ‘the left vote’. 

It is argued by some that Steve Turner is the only candidate who can beat Gerard Coyne, but this isn’t necessarily true. Since Howard Beckett stood down and backed Steve Turner there is an assumption that those who supported Beckett will now automatically support Turner. However, Turner cannot take the allegiance of those who support Beckett for granted. Beckett supporters were generally attracted to the radical politics he expressed and the left-wing challenge to the Labour Party. Many Beckett supporters are very disappointed that he has backed the continuity candidate, who wants a far more subservient relationship with Labour than Graham. One of the weaknesses of Graham’s campaign has been her reluctance to talk about political issues such as Palestine, the Police Bill, climate or Black Lives Matter. Giving a clearer lead on such issues would not only be the principled thing to do, it would help win over disillusioned Beckett supporters. The United Left was spectacularly ineffective at translating nominations into votes for Len McCluskey, and since then it split three ways behind Turner, Beckett and Graham. It cannot be assumed that Turner’s nomination lead will translate into votes.

Sharon Graham has another strategy to succeed, which is to encourage members who don’t usually vote to participate in this election. Voter turnout in Unite elections is generally abysmal. In 2017 the turnout was only 12.2%. Sharon Graham’s campaign message of improving workplace organising stands a good chance of connecting with members who are frustrated by the bureaucracy and lack of communication. Her candidacy could increase turnout as people vote for the first female general secretary.

Workers are paying the health, social and economic price for the Covid crisis, facing redundancy and cuts to pay and conditions. Unite needs to be at the forefront of repelling these attacks. The Goodlord and Manchester bus drivers‘ disputes have been flashpoints in the fight against fire and rehire. The TUC says that 10% of the workforce have faced fire and rehire during the pandemic. Many members already faced poverty pay and terrible conditions.

We need a union that supports workers to organise and fight back. Ensuring that we transform our union so it is more democratic and militant has to be our first priority. A new General Secretary cannot solve all the problems of the union. Fundamentally, profound change can only come from ordinary members. However, the election of the General Secretary is important, it can help change the direction of the union. Graham’s campaign has focused on creating workplace power, including such initiatives as ‘action ready branches’, a shop-steward parliament and coordination of shop stewards. This focus on workplace organising is worth supporting.

Despite fears about Coyne, choosing Turner as the lesser of two evils would be a mistake. Turner is ill-equipped to provide an effective challenge to Coyne, and his approach would mean a continuation of managed decline. This only builds frustration amongst the membership, feeding the very appetite for change which the right are cynically manipulating. We need to change Unite; it needs to become more democratic and enable workers to fight back. We believe that Sharon Graham is the most likely of all the candidates to defeat Coyne and activate these changes.

For more information about the election, see

For Sharon Graham’s campaign, see


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