Industrial  •  Unite the union

General Secretary election: which way forward for Unite?

01 June 2021

By Tim Nailsea

Unite the Union’s current General Secretary Len McCluskey recently announced his retirement, triggering an election process for who will lead the union. Two of the declared candidates, Howard Beckett and Sharon Graham, have made it onto the ballot paper, while a third, Steve Turner, is expected to join them in the last week of campaigning for branch nominations.

We recently had a false start in this regard, which exposed a division in the union’s leading faction, United Left, which we discussed in an article here. United Left held a hustings in anticipation of McCluskey’s retirement, in which it narrowly rejected the outgoing General Secretary’s preferred candidate, Assistant General Secretary (AGS) Howard Beckett, and selected Steve Turner, another AGS, instead.

The division in United Left, which is essentially a left bloc within the Unite bureaucracy, reflects a division over what approach the union should take towards the Labour Party – whether it should attempt to build bridges with the new right wing Starmer leadership or use its not-inconsiderable weight to push for greater concessions within the party, by taking a more antagonistic approach. McCluskey favours the latter course and thus attempted to anoint Beckett as his successor, while a narrow majority of United Left, by selecting the more conciliatory Turner, favour the former approach.

In a characteristic fit of pique, not to mention arrogance, McCluskey responded by declaring he would serve his full term. However, this was just playing for time to allow Beckett to rally support and launch his own leadership bid. Once accomplished, McCluskey resigned, firing the starting pistol on the election.

United Left has long dominated the union’s bureaucracy. It is a Broad Left formation, focused solely on winning positions within the bureaucracy based on a general left reformist politics. It is one of the oldest Broad Lefts and has its origins in the Engineering Gazette and the shop stewards movement of the 1960-70s. But any aspect of independent rank & file action, like the movement to free the Pentonville dockers, are just a vanishing point in the rearview mirror nowadays. United Left is more likely in the 21st Century to expel members who publically expose the bureaucracy’s sellouts (e.g. in the BA cabin crew’s dispute) than lead opposition to them. At its core, a Stalinist clique around the Morning Star guards UL from leftist “infiltration”.

While organisations hostile to the Labour Party, such as the Socialist Party, are part of it, its politics are Labourite in character, dedicated to enforcing the division between the political and economic struggle, and keeping the political struggle reduced simply to getting a Labour government elected. The union has, under McCluskey, thrown its weight around more in the Labour Party’s internal faction fights, being instrumental in ensuring Miliband was elected leader and, although initially sceptical of Corbyn’s leadership bid, becoming one of his most reliable sources of support.

On the industrial front, the left of the union bureaucracy is in many ways indistinguishable from the right. It uses more militant rhetoric and, on occasion, takes a more confrontational stance towards the bosses and the state; but this is almost always a negotiating tactic aimed at extracting more concessions. UL’s strategy is thus to win positions within the union and use these to wield the union to win concessions – or limit the effects of defeat – either through limited, bureaucratically controlled industrial activity or, politically, by horse-trading and factionalising within Labour.

The Candidates

There are four candidates for McCluskey’s job: Assistant General Secretaries Steve Turner, Howard Beckett and Sharon Graham, and former West Midlands Regional Secretary and General Secretary candidate Gerard Coyne.

Steve Turner is the AGS responsible for Unite’s important manufacturing sector, retired members, and Unite Community. He sits on the TUC Executive Committee and General Council and is National Chair of the People’s Assembly. He began as a bus worker and shop steward in the T&G before working his way up the ranks of the bureaucracy as a full time official. He has been instrumental in a number of sellouts, from Grangemouth in Scotland to British Airways in Heathrow. He and his supporters, however, continue to emphasize his left credentials and, due to the United Left endorsement, argue that any other left candidate standing has the potential to split the vote.

Howard Beckett is Assistant General Secretary for Politics and Legal, and sits on the Labour Party NEC. He does not have a long history in the trade union movement, having been a solicitor before becoming Unite’s chief lawyer. He is backed by Jennie Formby and by the Skwarkbox blog, which is close to McCluskey’s clique. He is a millionaire, and was fined £5,000 for, as a lawyer unfairly deducting fees from miners’ compensation claims. Personally, he has a reputation as being ambitious, and something of a showboat.

Beckett has been vocal in advocating a more confrontational approach towards the Labour leadership, supporting a cut in funding to the party and even hinting at cutting ties with the Labour Party altogether. While this is pure rhetoric, it has struck a chord with those members angry at the shift away from Corbynism. His approach is heavy on stunts, like leading the “walkout” of the left from the Labour NEC last year. However, his populism can be unprinicpled and even reactionary, like when he called for Priti Patel to be deported. While Beckett later apologised for the tweet, the Labour right had a field day and suspended him. Workers rightly expect better “leadership” than this blundering big mouth.

Sharon Graham, AGS for Unite’s Organising Unit, did not seek UL’s endorsement and is pitching herself as the “back to the workplace candidate”, backed by a new organisation, Workers Unite. This is in many ways attractive. Given the left’s defeat in the party, a turn towards workplace organisation may be welcome. Many on the left, including influential members among the sparks (construction site electricians in the Rank & File Network), have backed Graham as a result.

However, Graham has been heading Unite’s Organising Department for many years and the union’s workplace organising strategy has serious problems, which are unlikely to dramatically change if she is promoted to General Secretary. A “back to the workplace” drive led by Graham will be in a bureaucratic and top-down, doing little to empower members or build genuine workplace organisation and militant trade union activity.

The Organising unit is adept at short-term campaigns, aimed at strategically important industries and workplaces, with resources and organisers parachuted in from the centre, often bypassing regional and local structures. Seldom is there any branch organisation or rank and file democracy left in their wake, a fact that has led to later splits towards independent unions, e.g. in the Justice for Janitors camapign.

Graham’s other calling card is a turn away from Labour’s “internal” politics. The trade union bureaucracy will often substitute support for a Labour government sometime in the future in place of industrial action in the here and now. Militants will often react against such a false dichotomy, especially when socialists intervene to point out that a well-organised and active rank and file is necessary to keep a Labour government to its pledges and indeed go beyond them.

However, Graham’s campaign makes no attempt to place demands on the Labour leadership and cedes the political arena in its entirety to the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. By doing so she abandons the fight for workers’ control at the level of the state: the green new deal, nationalisation, the four day week, a living wage for all, etc. Instead the proposal appears to be for Unite to confine itself to “pure” trade unionism by accepting that Labour is recaptured by the Blairite right.

Gerald Coyne lost the General Secretary election to Len McCluskey in 2017. He then launched a complaint about the election process, which was rejected by the certification officer. Following this he was dismissed as West Midlands Regional Secretary. The threshold for nominations has subsequently changed to 174 branch nominations to get onto the ballot paper, which Coyne is unlikely to meet. This is an example of the left of the bureaucracy centralising and monopolising institutional power in much the same manner as the right.

If he does win, however, Coyne will reposition Unite to the right of the trade union and labour movement and pursue a strategy of conciliation and capitulation industrially.

Labourism and Reformism

All four candidates essentially represent variants of Labourism and reformism. Beckett’s left posturing, aside from appearing to be mostly theatrical, represents a wish within a section of the reformist bureaucracy to pull Labour leftwards through antagonism and leverage. Turner wishes to do the same thing, but through conciliation. Beckett’s approach, particularly given the support within the Labour Party and Unite galvanised by Corbynism, is likely to be more effective, and he is most definitely correct that the union movement’s continued support for the party should be contingent on its members’ interests being represented.

However, the strategy is ultimately a reformist one, still relying on the exertion of influence within the Labour Party to gain concessions from capital. Trade union leaders, pessimistic of the possibility of winning through industrial action and fearful of losing control of any such movement, instead look to Labour to win gains for their membership. Conversely, they use the anticipation of winning a Labour government as an argument against increased militancy. One should not expect a Unite Assistant General Secretary to pursue a revolutionary strategy, but it is telling that there is little mention by Beckett of a campaign of industrial action. Both Beckett and Turner, therefore, represent two variations of left Labourite reformism.

Graham’s emphasis on workplace organisation should be welcomed, but her relative quiet on political questions suggests that she is likely to be pursuing a conciliatory approach to Labour more in line with Turner than Beckett. Any shying away from a fight within the Labour Party, at this point, amounts to much the same thing as conciliation. Coyne’s approach is that of the right Labourite bureaucracy – absolute capitulation to the Parliamentary Labour Party and conciliation in the industrial sphere.

The internal struggle in the Labour Party remains one of the most important political fights within the working-class movement in Britain; the policy of Unite will have significant bearing in the outcome of that fight. That said, none of the candidates offer a realistic prospect of victory for the Labour left in that fight. Unite should campaign for the progressive policies of Jeremy Corbyn and seek to build on them, by building Labour Party branches in Unite-organised workplaces and linking up with the CLP left by sponsoring an independent conference of the Labour left. If it did only this – while denouncing every turn to the right by Labour’s frontbench and withholding funds until the purge stops – Starmer’s position would look extremely shaky.

A Rank and File Strategy

What is also lacking in this election is any candidate who is calling for a genuinely rank and file industrial strategy. All three left candidates are professional trade union bureaucrats with no direct links to the rank and file of the union, and their policies and strategies reflect this. The centralisation of power in Unite’s leadership, the dominance of United Left over the union’s election process and the high threshold for nomination mean it is virtually impossible for a rank and file candidate to emerge.

This follows a trend in British trade unionism, where a sprawling professional bureaucracy divorced from the workplace has come to dominate the movement. The establishment of big general trade unions, such as Unite and Unison, has accentuated this problem. A large union covering a variety of different industries relies on its professional bureaucracy even more. Organisation among ordinary members is much more difficult across different sectors. Unite is top-heavy; the influence of the leadership relative to that of the membership is enormous. This is reflected in the General Secretary election, where only national full-time employees of the union seem to have the recognition to get on the ballot paper.

Unite has long pursued a strategy which has two central pillars. The first has been maintaining a relatively stable membership in key industries and workplaces, sustained by recognition agreements, horse-trading and conciliation with management. The second is campaigning, aimed at widening that base and raising the profile of the union.

For the latter it uses “leverage campaigns” – short-term, high profile activity, pressure on Labour councils, occasional limited industrial action; even where longer strikes break out, like the 14-week Go North West bus drivers, they are isolated. Neither of these approaches – partnership and leverage – rests on the building of rank and file power in the workplace, certainly not in the long-term. Both short, aggressive, stunt-heavy campaigning and conciliatory negotiation rely instead on the union’s apparatus.

For the bureaucracy, there is little incentive to build up rank and file power in workplaces where they rely on sweetheart deals, as a confident and powerful membership may be more demanding. While members may be active in the leverage campaigns, such activity leaves little opportunity for long-term organisation. Members in this context are more treated like a standing army, mobilised as a show of force. Strikes led by Unite tend to be small, sectoral and reactive.

An alternative to this strategy is one of heightened militancy, using Unite’s industrial muscle in sectors it already organises in a strike campaign, aimed at halting austerity, saving jobs and defending terms and conditions. Alongside this, we need campaigns to organise the vast swathes of the working class that are currently not unionised, to encourage and facilitate an unemployed workers’ union and to demand an end to bogus self-employment and zero-hours contracts.

This kind of activity would revive the aspirations of the best militants and branches, while reviving others and recruiting new militants and branches to the union. But this alone is not enough; organisation and strategy are everything. We need a national rank and file movement within Unite and across the unions – mainstream and independent – to fight to:

None of the current candidates is advocating anything like this approach, nor can they be expected to, given that they are all creatures of the trade union bureaucracy, which sees its social position as threatened by an increase in militancy and rank and file organisation. The trade union bureaucrats reside in an intermediary position in between the workers that they claim to represent and the bosses. Their relatively privileged economic and social position is based upon the need for professional negotiators, who can mediate between workers and capital. They see the building of rank and file organisation and militancy a threat to their position, as it may throw up new leaders and new ideas independent of their own.

But for that reason, rank and file militants should use the election to raise workers’ expectations of what sort of union Unite can become – and more importantly their role in its future development. Red Flag will be following the election campaign closely, offering further articles on specific sectors of Unite’s membership and its policy choices, as well as monitoring whether any of the candidates prove capable of developing their own leadership credentials in a progressive direction.

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