More on the Unite election here.
Following discussion and voting in our caucus of members active in Unite and on our elected committees, Workers’ Liberty will support a vote for Sharon Graham in the election for general secretary of the Unite union, against Steve Turner and Gerard Coyne.
Our position has developed over a number of months. A consistent thread has been an acknowledgment of the threat posed by right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne, whose model of conservative, officer-led, service-provision unionism would be a significant setback for Unite. Another consistent thread was a consensus that Howard Beckett, who recently withdrew from the election in favour of Turner, represented the worst elements of the existing McCluskey regime and should not be supported by left-wing, rank-and-file activists who want a more democratic, radical union.
The election will be conducted on a First Past the Post basis, a far-from-maximally-democratic voting method that years of “left” leadership have failed to change. Workers’ Liberty supported calls for a single left candidate, even whilst acknowledging that the means for achieving such a candidate - essentially, back room talks brokered by McCluskey - were far from ideal. With discussions aimed at securing a single candidacy having resulted in the withdrawal of only one of the three left candidates, we revisited our discussions about the merits of the remaining two.
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.
Although Graham is very much a candidate of the bureaucracy, she represents a break from the existing regime. The continuation of that regime, represented by Steve Turner’s campaign, is preferable to the right-wing alternative posed by Coyne, but the fact it is a lesser-evil compared to Coyne does not detract from the need to challenge it. It has become increasingly autocratic, officer-led, and locked into a bureaucratic machine-politics approach, inside the union and out. Electing a woman to the most senior position in a major union that has been traditionally male-dominated, and which has a poor track record of dealing with allegations of sexism, would also be significant.
Graham’s platform also has weaknesses. She 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” to their alleged focus on “Westminster” - as if industrial struggles in the workplace can be abstracted from wider political and social issues, including what goes on within “official” politics, including in Westminster. While saying she opposes Unite disaffiliating from the Labour Party, she says she wants to de-prioritise engagement with it.
Some of the criticisms Graham makes of the way Unite has engaged with Labour are merited, but 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. A longer critique of Graham’ platform can be found here.
A vote for Steve Turner is a vote for the status quo in Unite - and, now that the Turner ticket has become the Turner/Beckett ticket, a vote that licenses the worst elements of that status quo: fake-left posturing masking egotistical careerism, backroom manoeuvring, and Stalinist-lite politics.
We support a critical vote for Sharon Graham as an alternative to that, whilst emphasising the need for genuine rank-and-file organisation in Unite that aims at the fundamental democratic transformation of the union.