Unite election: a more critical approach needed

Submitted by AWL on 18 May, 2021 - 6:45 Author: Dale Street
Unite flag

For debate and discussion about the election, see here.

For Unite's existing political strategy, referred to below, see here.


Sharon Graham is a very well-paid unelected trade union bureaucrat standing as “The Workers’ Candidate” in the Unite the Union General Secretary election now underway.

That doesn't rule out supporting her. Two of her competitors (Steve Turner and Howard Beckett) are also very well-paid unelected trade union bureaucrats, and the very right-wing Gerard Coyne isn't one only because he was sacked after standing against Len McCluskey in the 2017 General Secretary election.

It does suggest a more critical approach than that of Matt Dunn in Solidarity 592.

Matt describes Steve Turner as “the bureaucracy’s man”. But by the same token, Graham could be described as “another part of the bureaucracy's woman”.

The backbone of Graham’s campaign – for years past, as she prepared her election bid – is her own staff: the Organising Department bureaucracy.

Matt lauds the record of Graham and the Organising Department in supporting workers “against very real resistance from many officials, including 'left’ officials and Regional Secretaries.” But he is silent on the actual record of, for example, the Scottish Region Organising Department.

When the Scottish Regional Secretary and the rest of the Scottish Unite bureaucracy created the Progressive United Left Scotland (PULS) in order to destroy the United Left Scotland (too independent-minded, too critical of McCluskey), the Scottish Organising Department backed PULS.

They joined PULS. They encouraged Unite members to join it. They turned up to its meetings. They campaigned for its candidates. The then head of the Department – directly line-managed by Graham – boasted openly of all this.

Maybe the Scottish Organising Department is unrepresentative and exceptionally bad? Its record remains an issue to be factored into an assessment of Graham.

Turner can point to his selection as a candidate by an organisation consisting primarily of Unite members (the United Left). By contrast, although Graham’s “Workers Unite” grouping claims to have been created by “a broad base of Unite shop stewards and reps”, it is a top-down creation of her own staff.

“Graham has been accused of being a syndicalist. It is not true,” writes Matt. In fact, Graham has been accused of “syndicalism from above” and there is a lot of truth in the accusation.

Her election material is awash with caricatures of Unite’s relation with the Labour Party. It is effectively a plea for apolitical trade unionism. This is not an aberrant add-on to an otherwise healthy focus on the need to organise in the workplace.

Her manifesto criticises Unite for “losing ourselves in the internal world of the Labour Party.” It claims that “many of us have felt that Unite has focussed far too much on the Westminster bubble and not enough on the workplace.”

Graham will not “dress up a shopping list of political demands as a meaningful plan” but, instead, ensure that “our union will return to the workplace.” Graham will “take Unite out of Westminster and back to the workplace.”

Westminster is bad because “the bright lights of Westminster have too often left what really matters to members in the shade.” And it is a diversion: “A focus on Westminster politics is not a substitute for putting our weight behind any kind of strategy for the workplace.”

Graham is “not interested in internal game-playing within a political party.” Throwing a bone in the direction of the Socialist Party and the SWP, she writes: “There will be no more blank cheques for the Labour Party.”

Matt himself claims that Unite is now “more concerned with Westminster chatter” than the workplace, and that Graham’s focus on the workplace is better than “seeing the union as a prism through which to view the Labour Party and Westminster.”

All this is an insult to Unite activists fighting for Unite policies in their Constituency Labour Parties.

Graham says she will only support future candidates in the political arena “who have been union shop stewards or reps.” At a Westminster level this would preclude support for many left candidates. At Labour Party leadership level it would have precluded support for Corbyn (a former union official, but never a workplace rep).

Nothing that Graham writes indicates support for Unite’s continued affiliation to the Labour Party. Much of what she writes is entirely consistent with disaffiliation. Her support only for candidates who have been union reps, for example, is not restricted to Labour candidates.

Unite’s current but outdated Political Strategy – written in 2011 – is vastly superior. Its slogan is “Winning Labour for working people, and winning working people for Labour.” Its focus is on building Unite’s role and influence in the Labour Party at grassroots level.

The irony here is that it is Graham, not Unite’s Political Strategy, who is incapable of understanding politics other than as the bright lights of Westminster, the Westminster bubble, Westminster chat, and blank cheques to the Labour Party.

None of these criticisms, and many other criticisms which could be made, preclude support for Graham, if we look at her competitors in the race to be General Secretary.

For a start, she is a woman. Matt pours scorn on the idea that Turner should be supported because “it’s his turn”. But there is a case for saying: “It’s her turn”.

Unite has never had a female General Secretary. You would need to go back to the 1980s to find a female General Secretary of one of the myriad of unions which merged over the years to create Unite.

And although Graham’s workplace focus and strategy is steeped in apolitical workerism, syndicalism-from-above, and backslapping boasts of the supposed glories of her employees, there are elements within it worthy of support.

But in terms of computing all the pros and cons, it is difficult to come down on one side or the other in the choice between Graham and Turner.

Matt puts his finger on it when he refers to Turner’s “lack of work ethic” (currently manifested in his lacklustre election campaign) and Graham’s “highly ‘command’ leadership style.” Correct on both counts, but hardly an inspiring choice.

The mainstream left in Unite since its creation has been the United Left. Matt criticises its Stalinoid politics and its Broad-Left obsession with elections.

But in the last two years conflicts have opened up in the United Left up about lay-member control against full-timer control, transparency and accountability, democratisation of General Secretary elections, and challenging sex discrimination in Unite.

Graham and her team have played no role whatsoever in these disputes (other than the bad role in Scotland mentioned above). Hence Matt’s one-sided and only partially accurate portrayal of the United Left.

Matt now re-defines as rank-and-file militants some leaders of the very organisation which he damns – simply because they have switched support to Graham. The United Left has now broken up, probably irretrievably, with different sections backing different candidates – the "mainstream left" candidate Turner, the syndicalist-from-above Graham, or the demagogic Corbynista poseur Beckett.

All three candidates – even Beckett – represent different currents of left (or "left") politics as it now exists. In that context, socialists should have a lot more to say than virtually uncritical support for any one of those candidates.

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