Unite general secretary race kicks off as McCluskey announces retirement

Sienna Rodgers
© 1000 Words/Shutterstock.com

The Unite general secretary election is now underway as Len McCluskey has officially announced his retirement to the executive, allowing runners and riders for the top job to formally kick off their campaigns.

A spokesperson said: “After a full discussion by our executive council, it has been agreed that Unite’s general secretary election is underway. A timetable will be circulated once agreed with the independent scrutineer. The election will be concluded towards the end of August.”

LabourList sources have said the draft timetable would see the nomination period held from May 6th to June 7th, with the ballot opening on July 5th and closing on August 23rd, before the result is announced on August 26th.

Assistant general secretary for manufacturing Steve Turner, politics and legal chief Howard Beckett, executive officer for organising and leverage Sharon Graham and former regional secretary Gerard Coyne are hoping to succeed McCluskey.

To qualify, candidates must have at least five years of continuous Unite membership and must receive nominations from at least 5% of total number of branches, which is currently 3,467, making the threshold 174 branches.

Rules passed by a conference held since the 2017 general secretary contest changed the nominations threshold and determined that any workplace with more than 50 members can secure the power to nominate.

HuffPost UK has reported that critics of McCluskey believe that the threshold increasing from 50 nominations is a “stitch up” to disadvantage Coyne. Unite sources have said the new rules were agreed democratically.

Steve Turner, a former bus worker, officially launched his bid today with a ‘Charter for Change’ that aims to “transform the way the union supports its members and representatives in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Vowing to “make Unite win for all”, he said: “Under my leadership, Unite will be a strong, confident union fighting to secure the job and training guarantees our nation needs to build back fairer and the millions of green jobs we need to build back greener”.

The candidate backed by internal group ‘United Left’ has promised to decentralise Unite, introduce a new extended hours freephone, Unite Assist Team, and bring in a ‘one call that’s all’ service for members who need their union.

Gerard Coyne, who contested the 2017 general secretary election as Unite’s West Midlands regional secretary at the time and a member of the ‘Unite Now’ faction of the union, has also reaffirmed his intention to run.

“Unite members and reps are crying out for change, not more of the same,” he said. “Unite has spent nearly £100m building a hotel and conference centre in Birmingham. That’s a clear example of the wrong priorities and the wrong approach.”

McCluskey has said “those who have sought to question the integrity of the Birmingham project” are engaged in a “disgraceful smear campaign” as the conference centre will be a “powerful resource for working people”.

Unite has stated that the cost from a £57m estimate to over £98m due to an extra floor on the hotel, upgrading it to four star plus, extra fire safety measures and employing only unionised workers on at least national pay rates.

Highlighting that he is the only candidate not to be a current Unite senior official, Coyne has pledged to “put Labour Party politics on one side” and focus the union’s efforts on “the challenges of the post-Brexit, post-Covid world”.

Howard Beckett narrowly missed out on the ‘United Left’ endorsement, after a ballot that he criticised as flawed, but the assistant general secretary will be standing as a candidate of the left – unless Coyne secures a place on the ballot.

“The right-wing will not get on the ballot,” Beckett has said. “It would be a high bar they would have to meet and our branches will not allow that to happen.” If he were wrong, he added, the three left candidates would reach an agreement.

Beckett, a member of Labour’s national ruling body who is close to McCluskey and deeply critical of Keir Starmer, is officially launching his campaign on April 18th. He has described the race as “important both industrially and politically”.

Unite executive officer Sharon Graham did not seek United Left’s support but is supported by new organisation Workers’ Unite. If successful, the chief organiser would be the first woman to lead the trade union.

Graham is being pitched as ‘the workplace candidate’ by Workers’ Unite, which says it has been set up by a broad base of Unite shop stewards and reps to support Graham and ensure the union’s focus is on industrial activism.

“Our power is rooted in the workplace,” Graham said in her launch video. “That’s how we win. When workers first stood on the picket lines, we didn’t have Westminster on our side. We just had each other.”

Everything Labour.
Every weekday morning.

By clicking ‘subscribe’ you confirm you have read and agree to our privacy policy

More from LabourList