For more on the Unite General Secretary election, see here.
Ballot papers for general secretary of the big trade union Unite will be sent to members from 5 July. The three candidates are Steve Turner, Sharon Graham, and Gerard Coyne. A fourth candidate, Howard Beckett, has withdrawn and is now supporting Steve Turner. The election will be run on a First Past The Post basis.
Gerard Coyne, a sacked former union official who ran against outgoing general secretary Len McCluskey in 2017, stands a real chance of winning. He won 53,544 votes to McCluskey’s 59,067 in 2017. Coyne is a right winger; his 2017 campaign prominently featured reactionary nationalist rhetoric about migrant workers. He wants Unite to be more conservative industrially, less assertive politically, and more oriented to an officer-led, insurance-provider model of trade unionism. A Coyne victory would be a huge setback not only for Unite members, but the whole labour movement.
Given the threat of Coyne, it is regrettable that there are two (at least by their own lights) left candidates. Many differences in Unite do not map easily onto left-right lines, and it is by no means certain that the vote from 2017 represents consolidated political blocs that will split between candidates this time, with McCluskey’s vote fracturing between Turner and Graham and Coyne’s vote holding up. However, the risk of a broadly left vote splitting to allow Coyne in is surely great enough to have warranted additional efforts to secure a single left candidate, even if the means for doing so — talks and negotiations brokered by McCluskey’s office — were far from ideal, and indeed part of the problem.
Workers’ Liberty members in Unite agree on the need to prevent a Coyne victory but have different views on which alternative candidate — if any — to positively campaign for in the election, and a collective position is due to be determined by a democratic vote on Thursday 1 July. Turner can perhaps claim the strongest grassroots mandate, given his selection by the Unite United Left network, and his significantly higher number of branch nominations than any other candidate, and can therefore argue he stands the best chance of beating Coyne. Turner is very much a “continuity candidate”, and would likely maintain Unite’s current industrial and political orientations — for better and worse.
But the fact that Turner would continue the McCluskey regime, in close alliance with Howard Beckett, who in many ways represents that regime’s worst elements, is as much a case for opposing him as it is for voting for him.
Sharon Graham has a more comprehensive programme for rebuilding Unite’s industrial strength, with a manifesto that focuses on building shop stewards’ committees. Although she too is very much a candidate of the bureaucracy, a Graham victory would disrupt what has been an increasingly autocratic leadership and open up space for those who want to revitalise and transform the union. The possibility of electing a woman general secretary in a union whose officer corps is heavily male dominated, and which has had significant problems with a sexist culture, is also no small matter.
But Graham has significant limitations too. The anti-political emphasis of her campaign, casting her opponents as “the Westminster brigade”, represents an unnecessary counterposition of “the workplace” with the terrain of “politics”. Unite should be more engaged in politics — including within the Labour Party — not less. The union should do more to assert its policies within Labour, and mobilise its members to fight for democratic reform. Graham’s platform cuts against that.
Whoever wins the election, the need to build a genuine rank-and-file network within Unite, that can push for a radical democratisation of the union — including much-needed reforms such as moving to a transferable vote system for elections — remains acute.