Editorial: New openings for militant trade unionism

The victory of Sharon Graham as general secretary of Unite, amongst the biggest trade unions in the UK and Ireland and undoubtedly the most influential industrially and politically, has struck the labour movement as a thunderbolt. The Socialist Party and our sister parties in Scotland and Ireland supported Sharon and campaigned for her election. In the midst of the Covid crisis, this can be a pivotal moment for the trade union movement.

The roots for Sharon’s election are in the acute capitalist crises that have opened up that can be traced back to the Great Recession of 2007-08, the subsequent cuts barrage of Cameron and Osborne, and now the Covid pandemic. Workers have literally had to fight for their lives over the last 18 months but increasingly now have to struggle for their livelihoods as the bosses and their Tory government begin to go on the offensive.

Faced with such a stark reality, the most fighting layers of Unite members saw Sharon Graham as the most combative candidate, with the best available militant industrial programme and approach necessary to face up to the employers. Already, steps are being taken within the union to make Unite better prepared and ready for disputes. At TUC Congress in September, where she led the Unite delegation, Sharon moved the motion on fighting the bosses’ brutal ‘fire and rehire’ attacks: “I was elected on a mandate for change. On an industrial mandate to refocus my union on jobs, pay and conditions… For having a go, for a fighting-back trade unionism, rooted in the workplace”.

Sharon’s election is a further sign that the pandemic has shaken up the trade unions, with a marked move to the left in some of them this summer. UNISON, the biggest public sector union, has seen the entrenched right-wing defeated in the national executive council (NEC) elections, with four Socialist Party members elected as part of the left bloc. The National Education Union now has five Socialist Party members on its NEC, up from one, following the radicalisation of its membership in the pandemic, reflected most dramatically in 400,000 viewers and attendees of its forum on keeping schools safe in January. In addition, Carmel Gates, a member of our sister organisation Militant Left, has been elected general secretary of NIPSA, the largest union in Northern Ireland.

Organise the left

This can be a pivotal moment for the trade union movement. However, it is essential that in unions where the left achieves a breakthrough that this is consolidated by the strengthening and if necessary building of rank-and-file broad left organisations that are capable of ensuring that the fighting programmes are implemented, any right-wing reactions are defeated, but also that left leaderships are held to account and built upon. This is why in Unite Socialist Party members call for discussions to be launched, beginning with those who campaigned for Sharon including leading lay members on the union’s executive council such as national chair Tony Woodhouse, to create a new left in the union, on an open and democratic basis. This could also reach out to those who were attracted to the campaign, prior to and during the nominations phase of the election, of assistant general secretary Howard Beckett because of his leading role in opposing the Starmerites in Labour.

Such discussions about a lay member-led broad left should take into account the lessons of the now misnamed United Left (UL) that was the main support for Len McCluskey and has dominated the executive over the last decade, which became too dominated by full-time union officers. The Socialist Party has been part of the UL since it was formed after the merger that created Unite, putting forward our policies, but the election has made it clear that a new left needs to be built. Such a left would need to strive to discuss out its positions and argue for them in the union at all levels. The Socialist Party has our industrial and political programme for Unite as well as proposals to democratise the union. But we would argue those in an open way in any new left and engage in discussion.

Due to the experience of how the UL developed, graphically shown by its prematurely rushed and controversial general secretary hustings last summer, it may take time to finalise a new left but the discussions should begin. The upcoming Unite policy conference provides an opportunity to start the dialogue. Such an approach can build on Sharon’s campaign and could attract fresh layers in a way that proved beyond UL.

Victory against ‘lesser-evilism’

The general secretary result surprised many, from political pundits to those who regard themselves on the left of the labour and trade union movement. They saw the election as a run-off between the UL candidate assistant general secretary Steve Turner and the right-wing former West Midlands regional secretary, Gerard Coyne. However, the Socialist Party had long regarded Sharon alongside Howard as the real left candidates in the election. We had called for Sharon and Howard to agree a joint candidacy but mistakenly after withdrawing, Howard gave support to Steve Turner. This seemed to increase the odds in favour of Turner. But the result was a clear victory for Sharon and now opens up the possibility of building on the decade-long reign of Len McCluskey.

In our Socialism Today article from last autumn (The Battle for Unite, in issue No.243), we examined the victory of Len in the 2010 election, the first after the merger of the T&G and Amicus that formed Unite. We gave critical support to Len McCluskey because his victory was an important step in defeating the right-wing, which had at that stage coalesced around Les Bayliss, the candidate backed by the Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson.

This opened up the opportunity for Unite to play a leading left role industrially and politically. This was particularly the case when Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015. In fact, the 2017 Unite general secretary election was seen as Corbyn’s third Labour leadership election after 2015 and the attempted Blairite coup against him a year later. The victory of Len McCluskey over Coyne was essential in maintaining Corbyn in position and able to lead Labour into the general election a few months later. Then, by standing on a far more left radical manifesto, especially leading on the promise to scrap tuition fees, Corbyn almost won a spectacular election victory but at least denied the Tories an expected majority, plunging prime minister Theresa May into a terminal crisis.

But Len’s majority was slashed, only overcoming Coyne by 5,523 votes. Understandably, this led to calls for one left candidate in this year’s general secretary election. But we did not regard Steve Turner as a fighting left candidate, with the necessary programme. It immediately became clear, particularly in the UL hustings last summer, that Turner was not willing to challenge Sir Keir Starmer’s turning of Labour to the right in the aftermath of the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn. Further, the perception that Steve would not be sufficiently militant in opposing the employers was indicated by his comments in the hustings that Unite didn’t need an ‘attack dog’ as general secretary but someone in the background doing deals.

Sharon Graham’s victory was a shattering blow against the right-wing, with Coyne losing over 18,000 votes. As we predicted, Sharon’s fighting programme was the best way to take on Coyne’s right-wing populist message. It represents a decisive defeat of the idea of partnership with the employers and going along with Starmer. But her election is also a victory against the ‘lesser-evilism’ of supporting Steve Turner because he wasn’t as bad as Coyne. This can have further consequences in the whole union movement and politically too, as workers grapple with the need to build an alternative to Starmer’s craven Labour leadership.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was a definite attempt by the Starmer leadership to court Sharon, hoping that her ‘back to the workplace’ theme indicated a non-political trajectory. Moreover, some of the capitalist press misinterpreted it as a move to the right. But in her first few interviews, Sharon set out her intention to make the union ‘battle-ready’ for industrial struggles. This has been taken on internally in the union, with moves to sharpen up the preparedness for disputes. The Tory Mail on Sunday newspaper reported how Labour rushed to ‘distance Sir Keir’ from comments she made in her speech at the 2019 National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference and which she refuses to back down from: “We will and we want to work within the law. But if we are forced to work outside the law, then that is what we are going to have to do if we are going to defend workers, and we will be doing that”.

A new workers’ politics

There is the potential for Sharon to play a similar role to that of Bob Crow in the RMT, leading with a more militant posture and with the union thereby becoming a pole of attraction. This was consolidated in the RMT by material gains being won by the members. Under Bob Crow the RMT, in a complex industrial terrain after rail privatisation, nevertheless faced up to the challenges and were prepared to use their industrial power to secure victories. Even during the current period, where generally workers are under attack, where defensive struggles are needed to stop plant closures, mass redundancies and brutal attacks such as fire and rehire, there are also labour shortages due to chronic lack of training, the continuing impact of the pandemic, as well as Brexit. The union can exploit situations like this to go on the offensive and attract to Unite a whole new layer of workers, such as HGV drivers.

However, what marked out Bob Crow from most other union leaders was his understanding that the political struggle is not divorced and separate from the industrial. The whole experience of the unions in Britain over the last century and a half has shown the need to strive to build a political vehicle that acts alongside, complements and strengthens the industrial struggle.

Some on the left have raised their concerns about some aspects of Sharon’s campaign that appeared non-political or even anti-political. But they did this in a totally abstract manner – calling on Sharon to state what her standpoint was on specific issues such as Palestine or climate change. But as important as each particular issue is, a real political strategy is one that grapples with the crisis of political representation for workers.

Attacking the ‘Westminster bubble’ can chime with workers, who are correctly repulsed by pro-capitalist MPs across the Tory and Starmer Labour benches. But it is also necessary for Unite to raise the need for an alternative to this in all political chambers – from the local council to parliament – that fights for pro-worker policies and opposes austerity, privatisation, pay freezes, and the anti-union laws. This poses the necessity of standing or supporting anti-cuts candidates in next year’s council elections (see the article on local government on page nine). Sharon’s declaration that there won’t be any ‘blank cheques’ for Labour would then be more than just one of a financial character. In the general secretary election her Organising and Leverage Department was condemned by Turner for lobbying Labour mayors Burnham and Khan in Manchester and London respectively to intervene in bus disputes in both cities, weeks before they were up for election.

In 2015, Dave Ward won the Communications Workers’ Union general secretary election, standing on a similar ‘members first’ platform. However, within weeks he was plunged into the conflict in Labour when Jeremy Corbyn was catapulted to the Labour leadership. In the subsequent clash with the Blairites, Dave Ward didn’t absent himself but, along with the likes of Len McCluskey and the BFAWU bakers’ union leadership, played a key role in supporting Corbyn.

In the first few weeks of Sharon’s tenure, she has to face up to another battle in Labour, but this time with a revitalised right wing on the march, looking to lay waste to Corbynism and its remnants, including those unions that look to resist. In her first Unite executive council meeting, the decision to refuse to endorse Starmer’s nominee for Labour general secretary, witch-hunter general David Evans, was supported unanimously. This is welcome but the conflict is sharpening. As we go to press, the BFAWU has recalled its conference during Labour conference with one agenda item – to disaffiliate from Labour if the union’s national president Ian Hodson is expelled.

Such a move will also put on the line Unite’s relationship with the party and raise the whole question about the union’s political direction. In response Unite should convene a conference on workers’ political representation, open to all trade unions, inside and outside Labour, and socialist and anti-austerity forces.

Such a move would give hope to millions of workers that a real ‘workers politics’ can be built marrying militant struggle with a fighting political alternative. This is the opportunity that has opened up through the election of Sharon Graham that must be built upon.