On 25 August Sharon Graham won the Unite general secretary election, becoming the first woman to lead the union. Graham got 46,696 votes, with Steve Turner — the favoured successor of outgoing general secretary Len McCluskey — gaining 41,833.
Many feared that two left candidates in a First Past the Post election would allow right winger Gerard Coyne to win; in the event, Coyne came third with 35,334. The turnout was around 10% of Unite’s 1.2 million-strong membership. It was 12% in 2017, 15% in 2013, and 16% in 2010.
Workers’ Liberty supporters in Unite called for a critical vote for Sharon Graham:
“Sharon Graham’s platform emphasises rebuilding Unite’s strength at workplace level, especially through the building of combine committees of shop stewards. If this approach were enacted and developed, it could lead to the development of a new layer of rank-and-file reps and activists capable of catalysing and winning struggles.
“Graham’s warmer talk about militancy and organisation is linked to no programme for democratising Unite. However, her campaign has won support from a number of leading reps, including in the construction sector, the only section of Unite where anything approaching genuinely independent rank-and-file organisation has been retained or developed. Those reps see the warmer talk as more than just talk.”
We also had criticisms:
“Graham has used her opponents’ perceived focus on politics and engagement with the Labour Party to denounce them as ‘the Westminster brigade’, counterposing her emphasis on ‘the workplace’... The answer is more and better engagement — on a democratic basis, with the union consistently asserting its own policies and mobilising its members in efforts of democratic reform within the party — not a de-prioritisation of engagement with Labour by its largest affiliate."
Workers’ Liberty Unite activists will push Graham to deliver on organising new workplaces — not just signing up members, but creating stable workplace organisation and winning real workplace gains. Unite should learn from the model of the PCS union’s partnership with UVW, a small union which, despite that, shows capacity to organise and win disputes in new areas.
The potential a Graham victory represents is less to do with whether the person of Sharon Graham, through the genius of her leadership or force of will, can transform Unite into a more militant and effective union. We want rank-and-file reps and activists to use the openings created to carry forward a project of democratic reform, driven from below.