By Robin Jackson
The election of the Unite General Secretary currently underway is a crucial issue for the left in Britain. The union plays a key role in British politics and the outcome of the election will have a key impact on the situation within the Labour Party and the entire trade union movement.
Unite has more than one million members in Britain and Ireland. It is the largest left-led trade union in Britain and under its current leadership of Len McCluskey it allied with the more left wing politics of Jeremy Corbyn when he was Labour Leader, whilst the right wing unions supported the fight to crush Corbynism – and continue to support that fight today.
Should the right wing’s candidate in this election, Gerard Coyne, win there would be no major left-led union in Britain affiliated to the Labour Party and the left overall, both inside and outside the Labour Party, would be very significantly weakened within the labour movement.
Three candidates, backed by different strands of Unite’s left, initially sought nominations in this election. Steve Turner secured the largest number. He was backed by 525 branches, Sharon Graham by 349 and Howard Beckett by 328. The right wing Coyne was nominated by 196 branches.
Today Beckett has announced that he is withdrawing in favour of Turner. The politics that Beckett has been campaigning on are very excellent but he has made the correct decision to withdraw in favour of Turner and fight for Turner to win.
If there is more than one left wing candidate on the ballot paper it is most likely that Coyne will win. In the last General Secretary election in 2017, McCluskey received more than 75% of branch nominations and Coyne less than 15%, but in the subsequent ballot across the entire Unite membership McCluskey only narrowly beat Coyne by 45.5% to 42.3%.
Given the rightward shift in politics since Labour’s general election defeat in 2019 and Corbyn standing down as Labour Leader, this Unite election could be a more difficult fight for the left to win.
There is no guarantee that the left will win if there is only one left candidate, but to maximise the possibility of the left winning the left must unite against the right. Genuine differences on policy, tactics and strategy should continue to be aired, but within a strongly united left. If however Graham remains on the ballot paper control of the union will most likely be handed to the right wing.
Sharon Graham and her supporters should now take the same position as Howard Beckett and support Steve Turner. Not to do so would be a serious sectarian error opening up the possibility of the right winning control in Unite and therefore imposing a defeat on the entire labour movement.
Ballot papers in the election will be dispatched to Unite members from 5 July and the result will be declared on 26 August.
For more information about Steve Turner’s campaign visit here.
The joint statement that Turner and Beckett issued today is set out below.
STEVE TURNER & HOWARD BECKETT JOINT STATEMENT
Unite Assistant General Secretaries Howard Beckett and Steve Turner today issued the following joint statement in relation to the union’s General Secretary election, in which they are both candidates.
Throughout this contest we have both been committed to one thing above all – developing further the role our union has played since its foundation as a fighting back, progressive, campaigning force for working people throughout Britain and Ireland.
It is clear that developing that unique role requires the unity of the left in our union, and of all those representatives and members in the workplaces and beyond who have made Unite a union to be proud of.
Howard Beckett has decided he will support Steve Turner as Unite’s next General Secretary. Both recognise the vision and strengths of their respective campaigns and Steve Turner recognises the key manifesto commitments and energy generated by Howard’s campaign. They will both work to implement a blended manifesto, taking the best ideas from both candidates, when Steve Turner becomes General Secretary. Howard Beckett will campaign alongside Steve for the next two months to present a joint programme which includes greater support for workplace representatives, important new communications initiatives including Unite TV, upgraded education and training for members, an independent and progressive political voice, and a new structure for the union reflecting the diversity of our nations and regions.
Our programme recognises the central importance of organising and leverage to winning for members in struggle and building the union. We will also put greater resources into ensuring a bigger role for women and black members in the union and greater support in the workplace.
Steve Turner warmly welcomes Howard Beckett’s support and appreciates his decision to stand aside. As General Secretary two of the most important people in his team will be Howard Beckett and Sharon Graham and the structures of Unite would reflect this.
On this basis we look forward to taking a united message of positive change to our members up and down Britain and Ireland over the next two months, building on Unite’s strengths while adding much more to what we can offer to working people. We are proud of our union, and look forward to shaping its future together.