The Unite union general secretary election is the subject of intense debate after candidates’ nominations were declared this week.
The numbers for each were Steve Turner 525, Sharon Graham 349, Howard Beckett 328 and Gerard Coyne 196.
There is now a sharp debate about whether there must be a single left candidate. The argument goes that three left candidates will split the vote and Labour right winger Coyne could win with as little as 26 percent of the vote.
So, the argument goes, as Turner won the most nominations Graham and Beckett must stand down. It’s wrong.
This emerges as an issue only because Unite has an outdated first past the post system that favours incumbents and candidates from the union apparatus. The argument against a genuine left candidate is always "unite against the right".
If candidates’ votes could transfer from one to another it wouldn’t be so contentious.
The election matters. Unite is Britain’s second biggest union. It organises across large parts of the public and private sectors. It has a big influence in the Labour Party.
It sustained Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour right but also, for example, pressured him into supporting renewal of Trident nuclear missiles.
Coyne is an open supporter of Keir Starmer. His election as Unite leader would represent a shift to the right in the official trade union movement. It would be the third success for the right after their candidates won in the general secretary elections in the Unison and GMB unions.
But that doesn’t mean everyone should be stampeded into lining up behind Turner. The number of branch nominations is no true indicator of voting support.
In 2017 Len McCluskey received 1,185 branch nominations to Coyne’s 187 branch nominations. Yet McCluskey only just won by 59,067 votes to Coyne’s 53,544.
More importantly is Turner is an easy target for Coyne, who campaigns on a loosely-defined argument for “change”. He has no answers to problems union members are facing. But he will try to exploit the feeling that something is wrong in the union and that “business as usual” is not good enough.
But Turner offers nothing radical. He is continuity, not a new road.
This was starkly revealed in an interview for the Huffington Post that Turner proudly proclaims on his campaign website.
He stresses his belief in compromise and the close relationships between union officials and bosses and the government. He enthuses about “looking someone in the eye, just sitting down and having a straight conversation”. “People talk about ‘beer and sandwiches’,” he says. “But that’s where a lot of our business is done, in the evenings, in a coffee shop somewhere, just having that break and building a relationship.”
And he defends the present Labour leadership against the mildest attacks from the left. In the interview Turner says, “It angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our mayors, against Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that.”
This is an attack on Unite’s own campaign in support of bus workers in Manchester and London. It was gently to persuade Khan and Burnham to outlaw giving contracts to companies that use the fire and rehire tactic.
Turner isn’t the answer to the challenges Unite members face. He will shield and give in to Starmer.
Union elections can be very volatile, and the left needs to hold its collective nerve.
In 2000 Mark Serwotka was elected general secretary of the PCS union. He ran a strong socialist campaign. But many on the left, including the official broad left group, had told him to withdraw in favour of a more right wing candidate.
They argued that “the danger of the right” made this essential.
In last year’s Unison general secretary election, most of the left expected the more mainstream candidate Roger McKenzie to do better than left winger Paul Holmes. In fact Holmes took three times McKenzie’s vote.
Socialist Worker supports Sharon Graham for Unite general secretary. We are pleased she has won so many nominations on the basis of saying, “Our power is rooted in the workplace. That’s how we win.”
It’s important to have candidate who says, “Strongly worded press releases will not be enough. We must demand and install a fighting mindset throughout our union.”
She has won the backing of branches with a combined membership of a quarter of a million.
We have criticisms of some of her approach, and her reluctance systematically to take up wider political issues. But we think she should stay in the race and that her message of change from the left can defeat Coyne.
We want a shift in the union—not more of the same.