Unite: Sharon Graham's win

Submitted by AWL on 25 August, 2021 - 9:26 Author: Ollie Moore
Sharon Graham

For further debate and discussion on the Unite general secretary election, see here.

For our ideas for building and transforming Unite, see here.

Sharon Graham has won the Unite general secretary election, becoming the first woman to lead the union. Graham won 46,696, with Steve Turner - the favoured successor of outgoing general secretary Len McCluskey - gaining 41,833. Many feared that two left candidates in a First Past the Post election would allow right winger Gerard Coyne to win; in the event, Coyne came third with 35,334. The turnout was around 10% of Unite's 1.2 million-strong membership.

The result disrupts the regime that has ruled Unite for over a decade. That regime, although left-wing by its own lights, had become increasingly bureaucratic and conservative. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, and despite few predicting Graham could win, that those Unite members who are engaged have voted for a candidate promising change, rather than the candidate promising the continuity of that regime. And it is encouraging that, between the two “change” candidates in the election, Unite members chose the one promising a turn to more effective workplace organising and shop stewards' power, rather than the one promising to move Unite towards tame, service-provision partnership unionism.

Workers' Liberty supporters in Unite called for a critical vote for Sharon Graham. Explaining the reasons for our support, we wrote:

“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.”

We also have criticisms, especially of Graham's approach to questions of political representation:

“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’s platform can be found here."

Nevertheless, although we support continued affiliation to Labour (and more active and radical use of it), we did not see this election merely as an extension of Labour Party factionalism. Those on the left – including many prominent figures who are not members of Unite – who vocally supported Turner for reasons almost entirely to do with Labour Party politics, and little to do with the union itself, have been proved badly wrong. Many argued that Graham could not win, and that her even standing would lead to a certain Coyne victory, and apocalyptic consequences for the left-Labour project. Their self-righteous attacks on supporters of Graham as “splitters” and “wreckers” who lacked the “discipline” to “follow the line” (what “line”? decided by whom?) now look like risible toy-town politics. Some humility and self-reflection would be in order.

The potential a Graham victory represents is less to do with whether the person of Sharon Graham, through the genius of her leadership or force of will, can transform Unite into a more militant and effective union. The potential is in whether rank-and-file reps and activists can use the opening created by any shifts in culture at the top, and Graham's rhetoric about a turn to building workplace power, to carry forward a project of democratic reform, driven from below.

A vision for transforming Unite

Workers' Liberty supporters in Unite have recently produced a new document, summarising our vision for such a drive, and what its aims should be. The document argues for democratic reforms such as the expansion in the number of elected officials; more power to lay bodies; officials on a workers' wage; and electoral reform to move away from First Past the Post. It also argues for a more industrial unionist approach to organising, and a move away from a Stalinism-lite approach to internationalist class politics.

The document can be read here. We welcome critiques and responses.

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