Sharon Graham, Unite and “workers’ politics”

Submitted by AWL on 13 July, 2021 - 7:48 Author: Sacha Ismail
Thurrock bin strikers

Workers' Liberty members and supporters in Unite the Union have not yet decided who to collectively support for Unite’s General Secretary. Debate and discussion on the election here.


Unite General Secretary candidate Sharon Graham’s proposals for “a Workers’ Politics” point in the wrong direction. In many respects they are a regression from Unite’s current political strategy.

The wider output from Graham’s campaign says little about political struggles and largely disparages political trade unionism in favour of “returning to the workplace”. She has denounced rival left candidate Steve Turner and his new backer Howard Beckett as “the Westminster Brigade” (“the Westminster Brigade versus the Workplace”). In fact Graham lumps Turner and right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne together as the Westminster Brigade, as if Coyne rather than Turner winning would not matter!

Effective working-class politics does need to be rooted in strong workplace and community organisation and struggles, as opposed to just senior union officials hobnobbing with politicians or social media output; but Graham's stance is reactionary populist posturing.

Outlines of an approach

Workers’ Liberty argues:

• That a renewed, powerful labour movement requires political campaigning and representation alongside, rooted in and reinforcing its industrial organisation and struggles. The modern mass British labour movement broke through at the end of the 19th century not just in industry with New Unionism, but also in politics with the growth of socialist organisations, reorientation of unions from the Liberal Party towards independent labour representation, and creation of the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Party. Industrial and political strongly interacted. In 1906, mass political campaigning led by the LRC/LP and the TUC Parliamentary Committee won the parliamentary overturning of the strike-suppressing Taff Vale legal judgement and strong trade union freedoms, opening the way for an upsurge of industrial struggles. Since then industrial and political struggles have often been closely intertwined – though often not enough. In the 1970s, spectacular and for a while spectacularly successful industrial struggles, which went as far as bringing down the Heath government, ran into the sand because they lacked an adequate labour movement political expression.

• That while their core job is to help workers organise, in the first instance in the workplace, and fight for their rights as workers, trade unions should campaign on “big political” questions including climate change, racism and migrants’ rights and international solidarity, and more broadly to transform society in workers’ interests. The Fire Brigades Union is an industrially-focused union much better rooted in fire and rescue service workplaces than Unite currently is in the majority of workplaces where it has members; but it also takes up and campaigns on wider political questions (though in fact it should do so more strongly, consistently and energetically).

• That political connections, eg in the Labour Party, can provide important platforms, support and leverage in industrial struggles. More broadly, working-class struggle, certainly struggle which goes beyond small-scale and defensive, needs demands beyond workplace or industry-specific ones, ie political demands. Current pressing “political industrial” issues include repealing the anti-union laws, improving sick pay, raising the minimum wage, extending the furlough and self-employment support schemes, banning “fire and rehire”, defending and extending collective bargaining, increasing benefits and ending draconian conditionality, reversing cuts and refunding public services, ensuring meaningful public-sector pay rises, undoing privatisation and outsourcing in the NHS and elsewhere, and reorganising social care as a publicly-owned service. Both as campaigning goals and policies implemented, such demands can boost industrial struggles.

• That these considerations suggest not less but more and certainly stronger and more determined – as well as better, more mass-based and class struggle-focused – activity by Unite in Labour.

Workers' policies

In Graham’s “workers’ politics” document she repeatedly declares what she will and won’t do, with relatively little suggestion of a democratic process to debate and commit the union to a new political strategy. The top-down approach this suggests is an issue in her campaign more generally, despite “bottom up”, “workers’” rhetoric.

Ironically, then, Graham makes no proposals for what Unite should demand politically. It would have been easy easy to set out some priorities briefly, as I do above. Beyond opposing attacks on terms and conditions (and implicitly further council cuts), the document includes no policies at all. In fact it says very little about the general political and social situation, including hardly mentioning the pandemic.

It proposes a “democratically agreed Workers’ Manifesto”. Agreed how? Graham does say “the democratic processes of Unite will decide upon our policy agenda”. But Unite has regular policy conferences which in recent years have agreed many left-wing policies (the next one is in July). Many of these democratically-agreed policies are ignored, not campaigned for, by the Unite apparatus.

Instead of highlighting this problem, and suggesting which Unite policies or other demands are important, Graham says: “we simply must be more than policy proposals and demands”. Yes: but more, not less than... We should demand democratically-agreed union policies are “recognised” by the leadership and apparatus and argued and campaigned for – in workplaces, and more widely.

Graham says that “in the public eye we have been reduced to a brief blizzard of policy proposals”, counterposing “a sustainable, living movement for change”. This sounds a bit like Labour right-wingers suggesting that the problem with the party’s 2019 manifesto was too many and too ambitious policies. In fact it was that left-wing policies were announced, from above, at the last minute, not developed democratically in the movement and actually argued and campaigned for over years.

Graham argues for “working with local people on practical projects in communities and doing this on a large scale. Why can’t we deliver foodbanks or help find solutions for childcare if needed? … Why can’t we provide spaces for community groups that have nowhere to meet because of austerity?” These are good ideas – if connected to political campaigning with positive and transformative demands, not an alternative to it.

In terms of what Unite does currently, consider the vital issue of sick and isolation pay. Unite’s nationally-led political “campaigning” on this has been little more than a few press releases, making a vague call to raise sick pay but not even flagging up the TUC’s demand for a £320 a week minimum (or any other demands).

If the leading officers of Unite, with its large apparatus, extensive connections and high profile – and most importantly, its many hundreds of thousands of members – wanted to organise a serious campaign on sick pay they certainly could. The limited but real campaigning against “fire and rehire” shows that. Even a Unite-only, fairly top-down campaign could have a big impact – and a broad campaign mobilising large numbers of members and others much more so.

Or take the issue of repealing the anti-strike laws. Unite’s 2018 policy conference passed clear policy. The top leadership and the apparatus have ignored it, in fact working in the wider movement to effectively oppose this demand.

In general, despite Unite’s left-wing reputation, it has hard to think what particularly left-wing policies it has argued, let alone campaigned, for in the last year. Since the pandemic hit, Unite has, for all its justifiable negativity towards Starmer, been among the unions most strongly praising the government’s concessions on issues like furlough.

Under Corbyn, although Unite was part of the left-wing bloc in Labour, its most determined policy interventions were to prevent the party from adopting left-wing positions on airport expansion and nuclear weapons. It was weak on party democracy: it opposed open parliamentary selections, in violation of a policy conference decision.

Contrast Unite and the far smaller FBU. Unite did back the left-wing “socialist Green New Deal” composite at the 2019 Labour conference. But the FBU submitted crucial policy to the debate and took the lead, alongside left-wing Labour activists, in campaigning around this. It actively supported open selections. It campaigns for repealing the anti-union laws. It is the only union that has campaigned for public ownership of the banks and financial system. (Again, I would say the FBU should do more.)

Graham’s failure to criticise any of this, her failure to make any real proposals for policies or campaigning – her campaign does not mention sick pay or the anti-union laws! – and the implication that Unite has proposed too many policies all point in the wrong direction.

The Labour Party

Graham says she wants to “move beyond internal Labour politics” because “we have tried our political project in Labour – it has failed”. Failed permanently? What went wrong? Is there really nothing left to fight for in Labour? She argues against getting “consumed by the internal war within Labour” – which sounds sensible and sort of radical, until you pause and realise she is effectively arguing for Unite to step aside from challenging Labour’s right-wing leadership, and therefore from fighting within the party for left policies and struggles. Of course, working-class interests and not factional battles per se should be the focus. But to suggest those interests can be promoted politically without some degree of “factionalism” is misleading.

At present debate is, in part because of arguments from Graham and Howard Beckett, focuses on how much money Unite gives Labour. Actually fighting in the party (and more broadly) for Unite policies and working-class politics is rarely discussed.

“There will always be questions over the Labour link, and I am not proposing here to break it. I think that there are other, more important things to focus on.” Again the implication is that Unite should step further away from fighting for working-class policies and politics in Labour – when in fact it has done too little of that.

If Unite is going to remain affiliated to Labour, surely it should use those positions and connections to fight for “workers’ politics”, including its own democratically agreed policies? Perhaps there are “other, more important things to focus on”. But isn’t such use of the Labour link one important thing?

Graham rightly argues to fight Labour councils attacking workers. Shouldn’t the Labour link be used to exert pressure and mobilise support in such struggles as well? More widely, the logic of Graham’s position appears to be that we should fight Labour councils over particular cuts, but not push for Labour to campaign against cuts and to restore funding.

Steve Turner’s approach to the Labour Party and political representation and campaigning is far from radical. He suggests Unite is too critical of Labour mayors and councils in its industrial campaigns. But even Turner's inconsistent/hypocritical and politically timid advocacy of maintaining the link and using it to push for leftish policies and politics is superior to Graham’s disinterest in the fight in Labour and flirtation with disaffiliation.

Given all these problems with Graham’s approach, statements like “They [Labour] are there to drive the issues of working people – they need to remember that. They are supposed to be the political wing of the labour movement” become somewhat meaningless…

Political strategy

Those who disagree that struggle in Labour is an important mechanism for building up working-class politics still need to address how such politics should be built. That Graham is not doing this is illustrated by the graphic at the end of her document. It shows Labour, Green, Lib Dem and UKIP candidates pledging to exclude the NHS from the now defunct TTIP trade deal, with a tick by each – but a cross by the Tory, who did not make the pledge.

Is this the sort of thing meant by “a progressive, non-sectarian platform that sits outside of electoral politics”? Whatever you think about this as a single-issue campaigning tactic, it is not a model for developing working-class and socialist politics.

A genuine radical “workers’” criticism of how Unite operates politically should argue something like this:

As part of rebuilding the union as an effective instrument for workers and working-class people to organise and fight for their interests, Unite needs to implement its existing political strategy (“Winning Labour for working people, winning working people for Labour”) more consistently, sincerely and energetically, while updating and developing it further. It should undertake strong, pro-active campaigning for clear, radical pro-working class policies (such as...) and working-class political representation. It should consistently fight for democratically-agreed union policies in Labour; fight for party democratisation; fight for Labour support for working-class struggles; promote socialist workplace and community working-class activists as candidates; and educate Unite branches and members and mobilise them in the party at every level around these goals.

Graham’s stance of backing candidates who have been reps is marred by insisting that Unite should only back current or former reps. So not Jeremy Corbyn (who was an employed union official but as far as I know never a rep) in 2015 and 2016? And not Tony Benn for deputy leader in 1980? But a Blairite who has worked for an MP for twenty years but was previously briefly a union rep (or perhaps is a “union rep” in the MP’s office or similar) is worth considering?

This posing of things is quite telling. We need many more MPs and councillors who when elected or not long before are workplace or community activists. But Graham’s formulation about people who “have been” union reps – however far in the past, whatever they have done since? – surely reflects her own position in the movement. She emphasises the fact she got involved in the union through workplace organising. That is much better than Howard Beckett, who has never been a workplace activist or rep. But Graham has now been an unelected full-time union employee for decades.

I don’t know how much she’s paid, but it seems safe to assume a lot. Unsurprisingly perhaps then, she proposes nothing like the demand for MPs to take only a worker’s wage. After all, it can be applied to union officials too.

There are elements in the “workers’ politics” document pointing more in the right direction – for instance affirming that Unite’s structures should decide the policies it pushes. But they are buried in a mass of omission, ambiguity, posturing and regressive positions. Graham’s overall approach should be subjected to sustained and sharp socialist criticism.

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