For debate and discussion on the Unite general secretary election, see here.
The 2021 Unite the Union General Secretary election appears to have continued the pattern of a declining turnout in each General Secretary election since the union’s creation.
Turnout in the 2010 election was 15.8% (240,000). In the 2013 election it was 15.2% (225,801). And in 2017 it was 12.2% (130,071).
The Unite website provides a figure for the voter turnout in 2021 (124,147) but not a percentage figure. But articles about the election cite the figure of 12%. So there was a further (slight) decline in voter turnout in 2021, or turnout was about the same as in 2017. There was certainly a fall in the number of votes cast, from 130,000 to 124,000.
It says much about McCluskey’s record as General Secretary that voter turnout has steadily declined during his term of office – which lasted 11 years, even though he stood in 2010 as a “one-term-only” General Secretary.
The disappearance of nearly 100,000 votes in the 2017 election was certainly no surprise. Constitutionally, there was no need for the election. It was a transparent manoeuvre by “one-term-only” McCluskey to extend his term of office (again).
The low turnout in 2021 is a manifestation of the membership apathy and disengagement ‘inspired’ by McCluskey over the past decade. But the low turnout also revealed a flaw in the Graham campaign, even though it did not prevent her from winning the contest.
Her supporters argued that the 100,000 or so Unite members who had ‘stayed at home’ in 2017 would vote in 2021, mainly for Graham, and that there was therefore no risk of the right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne coming up ‘through the middle’.
The argument had substance and was certainly not a fantasy. But, as the figure for voter turnout confirms, it is not what happened.
What happened instead was a collapse in the Coyne vote, from 53,544 to 35,344, even though in the latter stages of the campaign Coyne was doing media interviews in which he claimed to be “quietly confident” of winning.
Insofar as the 2017 Coyne voters switched to another candidate, it would have been Graham.
Some of Coyne’s 2017 votes were a vote against McCluskey rather than a vote for Coyne. And with McCluskey coming out in support of Steve Turner (after his favoured heir, Howard Beckett, had withdrawn from the contest), those votes would have switched to Graham.
Graham also ‘out-Coyned’ Coyne in her attacks on Unite’s (alleged) immersion in internal Labour Party politics, thereby attracting a different layer of Coyne’s 2017 voters.
Apart from undoubtedly attracting some new first-time voters, Graham would also have picked up the bulk of the 17,000 votes cast in 2017 for the rank-and-file candidate Ian Allinson (who came out in support of Graham).
McCluskey had mustered 59,000 votes in 2017. Just as the United Left (the ‘Broad Left’ in Unite) split over whether to back Turner or Graham, so too those votes split between Turner and Graham, although the bulk of them probably went to Turner.
Graham was elected with the lowest number of votes cast for the successful candidate in any Unite General Secretary election. She picked up 46,696 votes, compared with 101,000 (2010), 144,000 (2013) and 59,000 (2017).
But the decline in the size of Unite’s membership must also be factored in. The union currently claims 1.2 million members, compared with 1.4 million members in earlier years.
Graham’s percentage of the vote – 38% – was also the lowest of the successful candidate in any Unite General Secretary election. McCluskey won with 42.5% (2010), 64% (2013) and 45.5% (2017).
Winning 38% of the vote in a 12% turnout also means that Graham was elected by just under 5% of the Unite membership.
This is all a manifestation of the McCluskey legacy rather than a reflection on Graham’s campaign. But it also demonstrates the depth of the malaise which grips Unite and which will need far more than the election of a new General Secretary to be cured.