The race is on to replace Len McCluskey as general secretary of the Unite union. This is the second most powerful position within the British labour movement, after leader of the Labour Party, and the outcome will have massive repercussions not just for the Unite, but for the movement as a whole and the Labour Party.
The four declared candidates, Steve Turner, Howard Beckett, Sharon Graham and Gerard Coyne, will be seeking sufficient branch nominations between now and 7 June. The election runs from 5 July to 23 August.
You would expect the Morning Star — a publication largely aimed at, and funded by, the trade union movement — to have a lot to say. But so far at least, there has been there has been one not very informative article: “Election Contest Starts With Four Hats In The Ring”, 16 April. The paper has noted, without further comment, that Gerard Coyne is “a rightwinger”, and briefly covered the three other candidates’ campaign launches. That’s all.
The paper’s political masters — the Communist Party of Britain — do take a view on who to support: “Communists endorse Turner for Unite leader” we were informed by the Morning Star on 27-28 March. The endorsement was fulsome: the CPB’s political committee noted his “contribution to the working class struggle from his time as a bus conductor to being assistant general secretary of Unite... [he is] a passionate fighter for his class... [the committee] called on all communists, socialists and trade unionists to support Mr Turner.”
So what explains the paper’s reticence?
Paradoxically, the main explanation almost certainly lies in the fact that the paper is funded by the trade union movement and, in particular, by Unite. The election is expected to be close-run. While Turner has the backing of the main official left group within Unite (the “United Left”), Beckett has the massive advantage of McCluskey’s behind-the-scenes backing. Graham’s campaign has made use of the union’s influential Organising and Leverage department, which she heads. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Turner will win, and the Morning Star (literally) cannot afford to antagonise the next leader of Unite whoever that may be. The paper has even been reasonably polite about Gerard Coyne, who ran against McCluskey in 2017 and came within a few thousand votes of winning.
There may also be another reason. While the CPB’s leading Unite activists are experienced militants with considerable knowledge of the true nature of the candidates, the same cannot be said for many other people in and around the CPB and for many Morning Star readers. On the face of it, Howard Beckett comes over as more “left wing”. While Turner says “I don’t think the union gains much from a public spat with the leader of the Labour Party”, Beckett makes speeches denouncing Starmer and last year led a dramatic walkout from Labour’s National Executive.
Given Beckett’s substantial social media presence and the sycophantic support he’s received from the Skwawkbox website — a forum that appears to have much the same politics as the Morning Star and undoubtedly shares many of the same readers — it may well be that the paper fears that by coming out for Turner or Graham it would alienate a lot of readers.
Certainly, it dares not explain why it is that serious trade unionists consider the millionaire solicitor and businessman Beckett to be a completely unsuitable person to lead a trade union.