Forget Party Politics. For Unite’s New Boss, Organising Is the Top Priority

Sharon Graham wants to take the union "back to the workplace".

by Conrad Landin

27 August 2021

Sharon Graham

Sharon Graham’s victory in the Unite general secretary election has been the cause of a lot of furrowed brows. With the race to replace Len McCluskey as union leader framed largely through the prism of Labour party politics, Graham’s insistent focus on workplace issues has baffled Westminster operators and political correspondents alike.

“This vote will decide if ­parliament can field a real leader of the opposition — a viable alternative to the Tories — or “a puppet tied to the purse-strings of hard-left extremists,” the Sun’s chief political commentator Trevor Kavanagh wrote in a column in the run-up to the election. Kavanagh was endorsing Gerard Coyne – a perennial Unite election candidate long considered by rightwing Labour MPs as the best hope for wresting control of Unite from the left.

The other candidates – Steve Turner, Howard Beckett (who later withdrew in support of Turner) and Sharon Graham – while all to the left of the union, ran on very different platforms, with Turner and Beckett placing more emphasis on party politics than Graham, whose campaign was based on Unite “going back to the workplace”.  

Indeed, Graham’s shock victory – an upset for both the union’s current leadership and its rightwing, demonstrates that this election was always about the future of work, and not – as so many on both the left and right claimed – about the future leader of the Labour party.

A setback for the Labour right.

As often as he criticised McCluskey for his “obsession” with Labour, Coyne’s campaign was the most Westminster-centric of the three. Though he won the least branch nominations overall, Coyne did pick up the support of both the union’s parliamentary staff branch and its branch for Labour party workers. 

Coyne is a longstanding ally of Labour First, the ‘old right’ (non-Blairite) faction led by Luke Akehurst and John Spellar, which devoted significant resources to his election campaign. Before he was sacked as an official (he remains a union member) for misconduct on the eve of his last defeat in a Unite election, Coyne was the union’s regional secretary in the West Midlands, also the main powerbase of Labour First, where Unite and its forerunners secured selection for the likes of Spellar and Tom Watson. 

An email from Labour MP Jess Phillips urging constituents to vote for Coyne presented him as a bastion of political moderation, compared to the “two hard-left candidates” – Turner and Graham – who were “backed by the Communist party, the Socialist Workers’ Party and internal factions of Unite”. Laughably, Phillips claimed that Coyne was the only candidate “not backed by a political faction”. However, Kavanagh’s column revealed why Labour rightwingers were so desperate for a Coyne victory: they believed it “would set Keir Starmer free to change Labour party rules, kick out terrorists’ friend ­Jeremy Corbyn and shunt ­deputy leader and arch-rival Angela Rayner on to the back benches”.

Moving away from party politics.

But as much as Coyne’s defeat is a setback for the Labour right, those of us on the left would also do well to reflect on the defeat of the two candidates associated with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – Beckett and Turner.

Beckett, a former lawyer brought into Unite to head its in-house legal team, before becoming, like Turner, an assistant general secretary, put his criticism of Starmer at the forefront of his campaign. Turner took a more nuanced approach, making it clear that he could work with Starmer, but that he would press the Labour leader to “keep his promise to the members” and maintain leftwing policies. In response, he received vocal support from Labour MPs – including from leftwingers like Jon Trickett and from those to the right, like Jack Dromey.

Graham, by contrast, put little emphasis on party politics – apart from, as she put in bold type on her election address, that Unite was “better than a war within the Labour party”. In that same election address, Graham stated that she was “the Workers’ Candidate”, and pledged to “protect your job, your pay and your conditions”. This was not just a criticism of the union’s perceived focus on the Labour party, but – and more importantly – a vow to ground the union in every day struggles at work. This would mean building workplace density and power in order to exercise leverage upon employers – otherwise known as the organising model of trade unionism.

During the campaign, supporters of Graham presented Turner as an advocate for the contrasting servicing model – which recruits members through the offer of representation, legal services and consumer discounts. Turner’s role in leading the union’s campaign against Sports Direct would suggest this charge is unfair. However, his statement that “a lot of our business is done, in the evenings, in a coffee shop somewhere, just having that break and building a relationship” certainly did nothing to help him shake off that image.  

Turner’s comments in that same interview, in which he said he has “a chat and a laugh” with Spellar at Millwall football games also angered rank-and-file construction activists, who were organising to ensure the general secretary candidates agreed to carry on the union’s investigation into officials’ collusion with blacklister bosses. Indeed, just months earlier, former Tory cabinet minister Norman Tebbit revealed he held secret meetings with the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union when Spellar was a senior official.

An appetite for organising. 

But where Turner was seen as the candidate upholding the status quo, Graham’s syndicalist pitch gave her campaign an air of insurgency. It also reflected the success of similar messaging in other union’s elections, showing that there is an appetite for a more aggressive organising strategy across the movement. 

In the GMB union, Gary Smith stormed to victory earlier this year with a pro-organising message, emphasising the union’s role in securing pay justice for women workers in Glasgow, which he was responsible for as GMB’s Scottish secretary. Smith criticised the union for paying “more attention to faction fights within the Labour Party than the industrial landscape that defined the lives of those we are supposed to organise”. Meanwhile, back in 2015, Dave Ward defeated incumbent Billy Hayes to lead the Communication Workers Union (CWU), arguing for a greater focus on the workplace and a reassessment of the union’s relationship with Labour.

Under Graham’s leadership of Unite’s organising and leverage department, the union has achieved notable successes – among them defeating the Go-Ahead bus company’s threat to fire its workers and rehire them on worse terms, and winning better pay and conditions for hospitality workers.

That said, other recent disputes provoke more questions about Unite’s commitment to organising. At British Gas, the GMB accused Unite of striking a “sweetheart deal for recognition & release time for reps” and “scabbing” in the fight against fire and rehire practices.

The new generation is demanding more.

Even so, Graham’s victory reflects a growing optimism – and a growing frustration – among a new generation of union activists, many of whom volunteered on her campaign. Having organised at the coalface of precarious hospitality jobs, care work and the gig economy, these young activists realise that it is no longer good enough to have an organising strategy at the fringes of their unions – it must be front and centre. 

The organising versus servicing debate is the most important question for the labour movement as it struggles to adapt to the modern world of work. Of course, the problem is that so long as unions are seen merely as adjuncts to the Labour party, this debate will continue to be ignored. 

Indeed, it is clear that many activists have resented Unite for putting the political cause before the industrial – a long-standing perception that was exacerbated by the media’s obsession with McCluskey as a political kingmaker in the Labour party. It was also not discouraged by McCluskey himself, who had a tendency to play with chess pieces during media interviews.

Hard as it is to envision Graham emulating this strategy, it will still be essential for Unite to remain politically engaged. That said, it can be done. Under Ward, the CWU has demonstrated that political campaigns, high workforce engagement and an aggressive media presence are all most effective when they work hand-in-hand. If Graham does achieve something similar in Unite, a much larger and more industrially diverse trade union, she could truly transform labour relations in Britain.

Conrad Landin is co-editor of New Internationalist and formerly worked as Scottish Labour’s head of communications and the Morning Star’s industrial correspondent.

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