Raymond Morell

Raymond Morell

What Next After Sharon Graham’s Victory In Unite?

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Raymond Morell is a Unite workplace rep in aerospace and was a member of Sharon Graham’s campaign team. At the start of the campaign, he wrote about the huge challenges facing one of Britain & Ireland’s biggest unions and why Sharon Graham was the best candidate to overcome them. Here he reflects on her victory and what needs to happen next. This article was first published at Voice.Wales.

The labour movement establishment has been rocked by Sharon Graham’s shock victory against the odds in the Unite general secretary election. Graham, who was vilified with disgusting sexist material being circulated against her and pressured to bow out to let the official left candidate defeat the right-wing threat, has confounded her critics by gaining 46,696 votes (37.7%). 

Her success was achieved by the efforts of hundreds of reps and activists working across the country, alongside her campaign team, to get the vote out. As the first woman to lead Unite, her success must be welcomed and disproves any idea that workers in predominantly male industries are unable to choose a woman to fight their corner. At the same time, Graham had to overcome sexist abuse, including being compared to Margaret Thatcher, which she says emerged after she refused to bow out of the race. Such attacks should have no place in the labour movement. 

Gerard Coyne, the right-wing, reactionary candidate, has finally conceded defeat – so at least the lawyers won’t be making a mint out of a raft of spurious but well-funded legal challenges against our union. This convincing defeat should send the right in our union, backed by Peter Mandelson, Tom Watson and John Spellar, packing? However, the ability of the right to regroup will depend on how the left responds to this major opportunity.

Why it was important Graham stood

Graham was put under immense pressure from supporters of Howard Beckett and Steve Turner to step back and prevent a split of the ‘left vote’. These demands played on the legitimate fears of left activists who were shocked at the near miss when Coyne came close to winning in the last General Secretary election. Then, some of the left tried to blame the rank-and-file candidate, Ian Allinson, for polling a respectable vote. 

However, for those who cared to look closely it was clear that far deeper problems lay behind the decline in support for Len McCluskey and the United Left (UL) in the 2017 election. The erosion in support for the UL had been underway for years with the organisation increasingly becoming a bureaucratic shell that focused more on manoeuvres within the Unite machine rather than looking outwards and organising members to retain control. 

This situation was reflected in declining votes for UL candidates at Executive elections and the vote for Len McCluskey himself, whose vote crashed from 145,000 in 2013 to 59,000 in 2017. Turner’s vote this time round was even lower at 41,833 (33.8%).

The internal manoeuvring reached its nadir during this election where Turner and the regional secretaries in Unite (who all supported his campaign) blocked the regional hustings which had been agreed by the Unite executive. Turner even refused to go on the LBC radio hustings – the only public debate of the whole campaign. The weakness of the UL strategy was plain for everyone to see and even Coyne was able to mock Turner for hiding from any challenge or scrutiny of his record.

Contrary to the ‘common sense’ view in union politics, there is no such thing as a ‘left vote’ once you step out of the activists’ bubble. Workers don’t fit neatly into left and right-wing buckets. Most union members have a complex range of views and problems they want to discuss and see addressed. They want to be convinced that they’re being listened to and will often support the candidate who provides the most credible solutions to their problems. 

The arguments about splitting the ‘left vote’ start from a spurious premise that workers aren’t really interested in these elections and that you have to focus on getting the activists to turn out their close supporters. If you’re convinced that the election will only involve a small group of enthusiasts, then why hold hustings? Why bother fighting for every vote right up until the end of the campaign?

Instead, the one-to-one conversations between reps, activists and members were key to building Graham’s campaign. The other campaigns did not have this network on the ground that operated largely out of sight. Instead, Coyne and Turner’s campaigns focussed on social media, phone banking and high-profile workplace visits. They were no match for Graham’s well-coordinated campaign with activists who spoke directly with workers.

As the anti-establishment candidate, Graham provided a vision of change and trade union militancy that proved attractive to members who were disillusioned with the existing leadership. 

Overall however, even Graham’s campaign was not as high-profile and radical as it could have been. Combined with Turner’s refusal to engage in hustings and Coyne’s cynical attack on the left, this did impact turnout, which was even lower than last time. 

But while Graham’s campaign was fairly low profile, it did pull votes from both Coyne and Turner, whilst also encouraging new layers of members to vote who would never have done so without the conversations with activists.

The aerospace site I now work on in Edinburgh has several hundred members with a two-decade history of nominating right wing candidates – from Sir Ken Jackson, to Les Bayliss and Gerard Coyne. It’s not that the membership on the site is ‘right wing’. The branch leadership was and they were the only people who communicated with the membership over that period. This time was different. The Coyne nomination was challenged by reps who saw through Coyne but couldn’t see the point of backing Turner. 

They saw the opportunity for change with Graham. After winning the nomination, reps met with the campaign team and then began to directly contact members working on site and those home-working to encourage them to vote for Graham. The rep’s operation ran right up until the last day of voting. This kind of intense, face-to-face contact was being coordinated by the campaign to help support several hundred activists up and down the country, and it explains how Graham won. 

It’s no guarantee that Turner, the status quo candidate, would have won if he was allowed to stand head-to-head against Coyne, who would have become a repository for all those looking for a way to express their frustration at the existing leadership.

Graham’s politics for change

In her manifesto, Graham argued that Unite’s political project in Labour has failed while the various extra parliamentary movements we support haven’t succeeded in building working class power. 

She wants to see Unite do politics differently and wants to engage activists and reps in developing a successful strategy. While Sir Keir and the Labour right may say they are comfortable with Graham’s victory, she has shown that she’s prepared to support reps who take on Labour councils and mayors if they attack our members and refuse to support them in disputes.

However, the biggest threat to the Labour Party could come from Graham’s commitment to give members more say over who we support with our political fund by ending ‘blank cheques’ to Labour. She has pledged to support candidates who oppose cuts to Unite members’ jobs and services, which could mean backing socialist political formations against Labour. 

Devolution and self-determination

Graham also says she wants to ensure that all political decisions will be fully devolved to members in Scotland and Wales. Graham says that it’s for Scottish members to decide on Scottish self-determination and that it should have nothing to do with London. She has also said that it would be up to members in Wales to decide what their relationship should be with Welsh Labour. 

It’s an open secret that a survey within Unite showed that most of our members in Scotland voted for independence in the referendum held in 2014. With greater support for independence today across Scotland, there’s no evidence that this situation has reversed within the union. 

If activists and members can hold Graham to these political principles, then Sir Keir Starmer won’t be so relaxed about the change in leadership in Unite. These challenges to Labour Party hegemony within Unite will only feed the discontent that is growing across the trade union movement, while support for self-determination will add further pressure on Scottish Labour with the Scottish TUC and several major unions already committed to supporting an independence referendum. And it’s not hard to see how this situation could be replicated when it comes to the question of Welsh independence. 

Challenges for the left

This victory should provide a lesson for the left. Many supporters of Turner have congratulated Graham on her surprise victory. However, despite the glaring failure of the UL strategy within Unite and the failure of the left to oppose the witch-hunt in Labour, some pundits still can’t face up to reality. In an analysis in the New Left Review, Tom Hazeldine sees the result as a defeat for the left in the Labour Party. All that this analysis confirms is a disconnect from the struggles within the labour movement. 

Instead, Graham’s victory provides us with an opportunity to build a new independent left, based upon building effective workplace organisation and resistance to bosses. As the count began last week, Graham addressed a large meeting of supporters where it was clear that many of the most militant activists involved in recent struggles were supporting the campaign. Alongside the familiar faces of seasoned left wing workplace activists, many young and new supporters were present. 

Graham described her campaign as an ‘insurgency’ within the union that was here to stay. The meeting was energised and completely different from the kind of left meetings we’ve attended over the decades. Graham indicated that over 900 activists had been involved in the campaign to get the vote out. It’s clear that an opportunity exists here to build up a rooted network of workplace activists that can become the basis of a new left in Unite that leads resistance to the employers offensive. 

There is a deep well of respect and goodwill for Graham amongst supporters who are now celebrating a victory we were all told was impossible. 

However, any new formation needs to be independent of the leadership in Unite and led by members to keep them accountable. 

As Unite General Secretary, Graham will face pressure of a different magnitude from the state, the government and the labour movement bureaucracy. No individual, regardless of how committed or principled they may be, can withstand this pressure on their own. 

Already the Telegraph is complaining about her ‘take no prisoners’ approach to ‘bad employers’ with the Tory party co-chair demanding that Labour condemn Graham’s ‘sinister campaigns of leverage’. This is only her first week in post and this kind of pressure will grow. 

But if Graham continues to avoid the big political questions facing the working class here and elsewhere, as she did in her campaign, then it will make it harder to resist these attacks. 

As rank-and-file activists, we need to seize this opportunity to build a powerful independent network, one that can defend the movement against a bosses offensive, keep Graham accountable and act independently if necessary. 

And if we want to transform the union, we will have to learn to take politics into the workplaces and sectoral combines that Graham has pledged to set up.

We must connect the big political issues with the problems reps and members face in the workplace. For example, no-one can ignore the fact that global warming has now reached levels that threaten our survival on the planet. Governments and employers across the world are belatedly recognising that they must act, with the Holyrood and Westminster governments desperately trying to portray themselves as supporters of a ‘zero-carbon’ agenda. 

The problem is that their solutions will always put the priorities of business first and throw workers under the bus. We are already seeing job losses threatened in aerospace and automotive due to the need to reorganise capital to accommodate new technology to deal with climate change.

Instead we have to fight for these workers to be employed in stopping the climate catastrophe. The ‘Just Transition’ has been Unite policy for many years, but it will only become relevant if our reps, members and communities become convinced that it is a realisable solution that we can fight for. This means taking the argument for a ‘Just Transition’ into the workplaces that are now directly affected, and where many of the senior reps have unjustifiably supported the employers agenda in disastrous ‘partnership’ agreements. If ever there was an example that partnership with bosses acts directly against our members interests. then surely this is it? 

At the same time, the impact of both the pandemic and the Tory’s handling of Brexit are combining to create labour shortages across the economy. This undoubtedly creates opportunities for the working class and our movement as a whole. 

At Anglian Water, branch reps for HGV drivers recently won massive £400 per month pay rises with improved leave, to retain and attract new drivers. If skills shortages are met with coordinated action then we could see an effective worker-led response to the crisis.

Graham says she recognises these challenges and her victory provides us with the space to explore new solutions and strategies to replace those that have failed us. However, we have been warned. If we are unable to seize this opportunity, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

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