In two days time, 5 July 2021, voting papers will be dispatched to members in the election of the next General Secretary of Unite the Union. Whoever wins will replace Len McCluskey, a strong man for the Labour Party’s left wing in securing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, who has been in place since 21 November 2010.
Unite is a powerful block in the trade union movement, and by consequence the Labour Party, boasting 1.4million members in workplaces and communities stretching across the four nations. The union already donates millions to the party each year, but this figure was cut by 10% in 2020 as McCluskey warned Keir Starmer over the direction of the party under his leadership.
This upcoming election, which will see the new General Secretary of the union announced on 26 August, is pivotal in the future of securing the voice of grassroots members on the left majority of the party.
Three candidates are on the ballet fighting for the position to take Unite forward, or arguably backward, over the next 5 years – leading the union up until and for some time after the next General Election.
Gerard Coyne is standing from the right wing, having narrowly lost to McCluskey in the last General Secretary election, Coyne expresses firm support for a centrist Labour Party and has committed to continue to fund the machine come what may.
Sharon Graham was one of three, allegedly, ‘left wing’ candidates. She is making a play along the ‘first woman General Secretary’ narrative within her campaign and refused to stand down when discussions took place to unify the left vote around a single candidate. She paraphrased Margaret Thatcher – a Prime Minister that led a vicious war against trade unionism – stating that ‘this lady is not for standing down.’
Howard Beckett was the second ‘left’ candidate. He has gained a higher public profile, especially on the politicised left, through his membership of Labour’s National Executive Committee representing Unite. He, after discussions, stood down in favour of the last candidate – Steve Turner.
Turner won the internal left caucus of Unite earlier in the process and, by some margin, the majority of union branches – 525 – with the nearest rival, Graham being nominated by 349. Right wing Coyne received just 196.
Because of Graham’s refusal to take part in negotiations to unite the left vote, members are left in the precarious position of a three horse race, with two self-declared ‘left’ candidates splitting the vote.
This election will not only decide the future of the union, pushing forward with a green industrial revolution and boosting the power of workers or tagging along at the whims of the flailing Keir Starmer, but will also decide the future of the Labour Party.
With the General Secretary of fellow union, Unison, already seized by the right it is all that more important that such a figure on the left is lost too. This could change everything. It could enable leadership rules to be changed and the party to be shut off from its membership and the public again.