Sharon Graham’s win in the Unite leadership election is being painted as a surprise and an upset. For those involved in Sharon’s campaign it was no surprise; it was expected. It was clear from the get-go that Sharon had a clear path to winning this election, regardless of who else stood.
This campaign was about the members. A buy-in from active membership taking ownership of the campaign was the only way Sharon could win this election. Sharon didn’t have Murdoch support like Coyne, nor did she have the incumbent and senior Unite staffers backing her like Turner. Sharon’s win was the result of lay members leading at every level of the campaign. They were able to present a clear vision for left-wing change, bringing about a breadth of support that no other candidate could match.
There were two analyses of what was going on in this election. The first, pushed by the mainstream media, was that this election was best understood as a proxy war around Labour. Under this scenario, it was assumed that Turner represented a spectre of Corbyn, and Coyne a spectre of Starmer.
The second view was that this election would be decided on mobilising a stable left voting bloc and a stable, more right-wing bloc within the Union, informing the strategies of Turner and Coyne respectively. Because of this, Coyne’s campaign strategy was red-baiting, and pushed a service model of trade unions. Many of Turner’s supporters seemed to be pushing for left discipline, and saw the intervention of the left within and outside the union as crucial.
But the outcome of this election was about an insurgent campaign that put policy before personality. The vision spoke to a frustration with the way Unite works as well as a hope for what Unite could be for a sizeable section of the membership. Sharon Graham’s manifesto concretely laid out what she would do once elected, not as an ideal or aspiration, but as a plan to enact from day one of the job.
Having this detailed plan enabled reps and members to have serious and detailed conversations with other members and to point out ironclad commitments. Because Sharon Graham’s plan was there for everyone to see, it was a lot easier to sell it on the ground. Trusted members and reps ran the campaign as they saw fit. The importance of the campaign being member-led cannot be overstated for getting the vote out. As a workplace representative you are instinctively trusted by colleagues, as opposed to someone employed by the union.
Finally, what made her campaign team so committed was that the fight wasn’t easy. At every stage we were working against the grain – going against our regional secretaries, being called splitters by comrades, and having documents leaked to right-wing rags like the Daily Mail. Campaigners for Sharon Graham worked for the win because we had an unwavering optimism about the future of our union and of our movement. That commitment and enthusiasm simply could not be matched by the other campaigns, which either shrank from the challenges the union faces or relied on a tactical voting mirage.
A better way to understand the result is that in any election candidates can be put into two categories: a change candidate, or a continuity candidate. Turner, while standing on a platform that differed from previous General Secretary McCluskey in notable ways, was a continuity candidate. This was obvious from Turner gaining the support of all the regional secretaries. Regional secretaries are appointed to their role and wield considerable power in the functioning of Unite.
The vast majority of the left commentariat were also backing Turner on the basis that a tactical vote was needed to prevent a split of the block of left voters which, it was argued, would deliver the union to the right. McCluskey’s endorsement of Turner created a definitive and unavoidable association in members’ minds between the current leadership of the union and the leadership Turner was hoping to inherit. But in this campaign, continuity did not cut it. This left those members with frustrations and concerns, who still wanted change, with a choice between two candidates: Sharon Graham and Gerard Coyne.
Coyne’s vision of change was narrow. It was notable for its lack of ambition for Unite. The focus was on criticising past decisions taken in the union (many of which happened while he was a senior staff member), aiming for a service model of trade unionism, and shifting the union to a moderate position that would take little interest in major political questions. The big takeaway from comparing the 2017 election with this one was that his vote share fell, in part because those seeking change found a better vehicle for their aspirations in Sharon Graham.
Sharon Graham’s campaign had the winning combination of having worked alongside McCluskey for a number of years, supporting his left-wing agenda, but also pointing Unite in a new direction through her policy platform – one that made sense to the frustrated and disillusioned union electorate. She was not afraid to criticise the union as it was, but she had concrete solutions that resonated with members.
The crux of this new direction was ‘back to the workplace’. For anyone who is a member of Unite in a workplace or sector that doesn’t have even moderate levels of unionisation, getting ‘back to the workplace’, building up our membership and militancy, is the only way to keep Unite relevant.
We’ve had a decade of lost wage growth, increasing automation, the proliferation of the gig economy, and a whole host of other issues affecting workers, which wreck lives and livelihoods. Ultimately the only mechanism to overcome these threats is having the industrial and organisational muscle to take on bosses.
The truth for many members and workplace reps such as myself is that we feel there hasn’t been a strong enough commitment to build power from the bottom-up. There is a need to give workplaces right across the board the support to have a fighting chance against ruthless bosses: from building the membership density in workplaces to accessing resources, they need to run successful campaigns.
Sharon has been painted as apolitical on issues not directly linked to the workplace, but the reality is that until we have a dense and active union on the shopfloor, our engagement with wider political issues and support for measures to tackle the climate crisis can only be tokenistic. Without the membership buying into these issues through political engagement—engagement that aims to get majority support from members—they will be predominantly dealt with through public relations and money-throwing. Instead, we need to use the force of organised labour to effectively tackle problems.
Also crucial to this victory was the active role women workplace reps and members played. Candidates and commentators calling for the only woman standing, a socialist woman with a wealth of industrial victories under her belt, to stand down came across badly. This pressure, rather than being off-putting to the campaign, galvanised members. Too often women on the left, whether intentionally or not, encounter barriers to political participation. Sharon Graham’s tenure as general secretary will strive to change this.
Unite is now committed to building power in the workplace and showing millions of people that they have the capacity to change their lives and the world for the better. There will be no more blank cheques for the Labour Party, to help ensure that they champion workers’ issues and develop policy in that line. We are committed to organising industrial combines that bring together reps from across sectors. There is a future where all workers enjoy dignity and agency in their lives, both in and outside the workplace. It is my belief that Sharon Graham and Unite will be committed to realising that future from now on.