For a fighting programme and a new left in Unite

The Socialist Party is supporting Sharon Graham for Unite general secretary. The ballot opens on 5 July. Many of the most combative workers are increasingly being drawn towards her campaign as they look to resist the growing offensive of the bosses.

It is no accident that the lead reps in the successful strikes on Manchester buses and Thurrock bins against their employers’ attacks, such as ‘fire and rehire’, are supporting Sharon, as are the rank-and-file construction electricians, recently victorious in their battle against the bosses’ deskilling agenda.

We argued throughout the long pre-election period and during the nomination stage for there to be one fighting left candidate. We have not accepted that the United Left (UL) candidate Steve Turner is capable of playing this role.

At the UL hustings last summer, in response to Howard Beckett’s attack on Sir Keir Starmer moving Labour to the right, Turner pointedly distanced himself, saying that a Unite general secretary isn’t an attack dog but has to be in the background doing deals. This would be a retreat from the position of Unite under Len McCluskey, in standing up to the Labour right.

Just before nominations opened, in the Huffington Post on 28 April, Steve Turner criticised the campaign of Sharon’s organising and leverage department to supplement the Manchester bus strike by putting pressure on Labour mayor Andy Burnham to directly intervene in the dispute: “I want to see Labour councillors elected on May 6. I want to see Labour mayors. And it frustrates me, it angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our mayors, against Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that”.

Yet that action, supplementing the 85 days of strikes, was part of the victory of Unite members on the buses. Would that have been possible if Turner had been general secretary, with his approach of being prepared to put the union’s relationship with Starmer’s Labour before Unite members?

We argued for Sharon and Howard to come together and unite around one candidate on a militant industrial and political programme. This would have electrified the election campaign.

Therefore, it is a serious mistake that Howard Beckett has withdrawn in order to support Turner. There will be Unite members who genuinely believe that this is necessary in order not to split the vote, given that right-winger Gerard Coyne has succeeded in getting on the ballot paper. But the best way to avoid this would have been for Howard to unite with Sharon. That in turn would have put pressure on Turner to withdraw.

Some argue that Steve Turner is the ordained left candidate after winning most nominations. But a joint candidature of Sharon and Howard Beckett would have had 677 nominations to his 525, with branches representing around 380,000 members compared to Turner’s tally of 270,000 or so.

We understand those Unite members who have concerns. In the last Unite general secretary election in 2017, defeating Coyne was a big factor in our continuing support for Len McCluskey. That time, the Blairites saw the Unite election as providing another opportunity to unseat Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership of the Labour Party, a year after their failed coup against him. Unite, under Len’s leadership, was one of the main defenders of Corbyn. Coyne, with 53,544 votes, came within 5,600 votes of winning, while left-winger Ian Allinson won 17,143 votes. But the defeat of Coyne and his Blairite backers then partly ensured the survival of Corbyn, to contest the 2017 general election and, on the basis of his manifesto, deliver an increase in votes of 3.5 million and deny the Tories victory.

But this Unite contest is in a very different political context. Turner’s candidacy and programme in relation to Starmer reflects the defeat of Corbynism within the Labour Party, and represents a retreat from the political stand that the union took when Corbyn was under the Blairite siege and since, in opposing the right-wing on the Labour Party National Executive Committee.

The joint statement of Steve and Howard promises a ‘blended manifesto’. But how, for example, will the opposite standpoints on Starmer’s Labour leadership be reconciled? Should Unite be prepared to ‘pitch campaigns’ against right-wing Labour politicians attacking Unite members, or not?

Steve Turner announced his alliance with Beckett but not with the call for Howard to be reinstated to Labour Party membership after his suspension by Starmer.  Starmer, on the other hand, days later, is happy to admit the ex-Tory MP John Bercow to the party!

Contrast this conciliatory approach to that of the BFAWU bakers’ union, when announcing the result of their consultation with members on the union’s relationship with Labour which found that 53% of BFAWU members no longer wanted the union to be affiliated to the party. “With regard to ‘Covid-19’, rather than oppose the government”, they wrote, “Labour have backed them all the way and nodded through their ‘strategies’ and policies with only the illusion of a challenge, which often demanded more of the same or something worse… the Tories have enjoyed the full support of Keir Starmer’s Labour”.

Sharon Graham is the only candidate left in the race who would challenge Starmer, as she has done with the Labour mayors. Not only is it essential that she stands, in order to give a fighting lead, but those Unite members who were attracted to Howard Beckett because of his opposition to Starmer’s driving of Labour to the right, should join her campaign.

We are totally opposed to Coyne and don’t take the risk of him winning and the threat to the union lightly. We would fight with all others in the union against him, including the union’s left-led national Executive Council, where Sharon has significant support. Coyne, in contrast, would be in a tiny minority. But we don’t accept the pessimistic idea that it is inevitable that Sharon standing will lead to a Coyne victory, or as it is being presented by Turner supporters, ‘Vote Graham, get Coyne’.

In fact, the most effective way to take on Coyne’s populism – his posturing as a ‘voice of the ordinary worker’ against the machine – is through a fighting programme that can appeal to the broader layers of Unite members, who don’t normally vote in the union’s elections.

We agree with Sharon’s desire to make the union more industrially organised and ready for action, including building and extending shop stewards combines. We also support her promise that Unite should “oppose any local authority, including Labour, if they attempt to force through cuts to jobs and services after Covid-19 and beyond… and support candidates who oppose cuts to Unite members’ jobs and services and councils and councillors who fight against them”.

These are welcome pledges. In our view, it is important that Sharon’s campaign does not attempt to avoid the political issues, but instead confronts the reality of Starmer’s pro-capitalist leadership of Labour. This will pose the need for a left, anti-austerity political vehicle for workers that will be attractive to Unite members as they come into collision with the ‘Westminster brigade’ of Starmer and the cutting Labour councillors.

The fighting programme that is needed is still possible and can win this election. That is why the most fighting members in the union must unite around Sharon’s campaign. This should include those who were attracted to Howard’s campaign, particularly his opposition to Starmer.

Such an election campaign can become a pole of attraction to all those who want to build on Len McCluskey’s leadership rather than retreat from it. It must be the basis for a new fighting and open and democratic left within Unite, which will be necessary whatever the outcome of this election, to help build the combative union that is required to meet the challenges of a system in crisis.

Rob Williams