Unite election: no good options

Submitted by AWL on 20 April, 2021 - 4:59 Author: Ollie Moore
Unite general secretary candidates

For debate and discussion about the election, see here.


Members of Unite, one of Britain’s largest trade unions, will elect a new general secretary. Len McCluskey, who has been in office since 2010, has announced his retirement. The branch nomination period will run from 6 May to 7 June, with members voting by postal ballot from 5 July to 23 August, and the result announced on 26 August.

There are four declared candidates so far — Howard Beckett, Steve Turner, Sharon Graham, and Gerard Coyne. All four are current or former unelected officials of the union. Constitutional arrangements which allow unelected, paid employees of unions to intervene in their democracy are far from ideal, and help bolster the power of bureaucracies against rank-and-file members. Nevertheless, there are meaningful differences between the candidates.

Gerard Coyne

Coyne is a straightforward right winger, offering a conservative, service-provision model of trade unionism that rejects socialist politics and industrial militancy. Coyne stood against McCluskey in 2017, losing only 53,544 to 59,067 on a very low turnout. He made opposition to free movement, and canards about migrant workers driving down wages and taking jobs, central aspects of his campaign in that election.

The current ruling faction in the bureaucracy is hoping a change to the election rules, which increased the number of branch nominations candidates require to make the ballot paper, will block Coyne from standing. The threshold to get onto the ballot paper was raised from nominations from 50 branches to 5% of all branches (which now means, from 174 branches). This manoeuvre may keep Coyne off the ballot this time. He is the only candidate not currently in post as an unelected official. But it is essentially bureaucratic gerrymandering which will also hurt future left-wing and rank-and-file candidacies.

None of the current three “left” candidates (Beckett, Turner, and Graham) uttered a word of protest about the increase in the number of branch nominations needed. With each having their own election machine based among officials, they were probably even happy to see the bar raised.

Howard Beckett

Howard Beckett is McCluskey’s favoured successor. He embodies many of the worst aspects of the McCluskey leadership: left-wing posturing and militant-sounding speeches as a front for influence-peddling, patronage, and back-room politicking. Beckett has now been tasked by McCluskey to shut down debate and challenges about the scandal of the failure to keep the union's Executive Council informed of the rocketing costs of the construction of its new conference centre in Birmingham. As head of the union’s legal department, he led Unite’s disgraceful response to an employment tribunal claim brought against it by a female officer who suffered sexist abuse.

Recently, Beckett has used his substantial social-media following to post about how Unite will fight militantly against “fire and rehire”, but has been oddly silent when called out about the fact that, in British Gas, the site of the most significant dispute against fire and rehire, Unite accepted British Gas’s new contracts, scabbed on the GMB’s strikes, and signed a sweetheart deal. Activists involved in the dispute report that many of Unite’s rank-and-file members wanted to reject the contracts, but were overridden by officers including Beckett himself.

Steve Turner

Steve Turner is currently an assistant general secretary, with a prominent role in determining Unite’s industrial strategy. Turner is the co-chair of the People’s Assembly. Like Beckett, he is, in many ways, a “continuity-McCluskey” candidate, but with the advantage of being more personally distant from allegations of corruption and sexism. Turner’s candidacy is supported by the United Left, the main left-wing grouping in the union. Turner has committed to introduce a new free-phone service for union members, promising a “one call, that’s all” option for members to contact their union.

That emphasis reflects a focus on the union being an efficient staff “machine” to provide services to individual members, rather than on workers organising themselves in workplaces.

Sharon Graham

Sharon Graham heads Unite’s Organising and Leverage department, a small army of full-time professional organisers. Sadly, she appears to have no hesitation in deploying her staff in the service of her candidacy as well as for the work they are employed by the union to do.

Graham emphasises a back-to-basics focus on workplace organising, and plays down engagement with official politics. “When workers first stood on the picket lines,” she said recently, “we didn’t have Westminster on our side. We just had each other.”

It might be added that we didn’t have squadrons of unelected, unaccountable, and sometimes high-paid officials from union organising departments “on our side” either. And that militant workers soon concluded that having our own representatives in Westminster was a good idea, hence the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee.

None of the candidates represent rank-and-file, industrial trade unionism

Graham’s emphasis on building and rebuilding workplace strength has much to recommend it, and contains many legitimate criticisms of the way the McCluskey regime has conducted its politics. However, there is also a risk — especially if Coyne fails to get onto the ballot paper — that the organised forces of the right within the union could attempt to confiscate Graham’s campaign and give her “back-to-basics” emphasis a conservative twist which transmutes it into “Unite should be less left-wing.”

Graham’s decision to stand on her record in the union’s organising department also raises broader questions about how much “organising” in Unite is really about lay-member empowerment and how much about unelected organisers posturing as militants but treating union activists as if they were their managers.

The election will be First Past The Post. Beckett, Graham and Turner are reported to have agreed that two of them will stand down if Coyne gets onto the ballot paper. In an FPTP election, there are clear advantages to a single left candidate. But for this rumoured agreement to have been made behind closed doors, without any democratic oversight or opportunity for rank-and-file members to input into the decision about who the single left candidate should be, is further evidence of the deterioration of lay-member democracy under the McCluskey regime.

As well as more than trebling the number of branch nominations required, the leadership also successfully argued at the last Rules Revision Conference against Single Transferable Vote for General Secretary elections.

Workers’ Liberty members active in Unite met on 18 April to discuss the election. The meeting agreed that none of the candidates represent our vision of rank-and-file, industrial trade unionism. But they are not all the same. We cannot back the hard right and fake “left” options represented by Coyne and Beckett.

A further meeting will revisit the question of backing Turner or Graham once their campaigns have developed further and their political character becomes clearer. The meeting also re-emphasised our critique of the role of the union bureaucracy, and opposed involvement of unelected union staff in the election campaigns.

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