Sharon Graham secures place on ballot in Unite general secretary race

Elliot Chappell
© Andrew Skudder/CC BY-SA 2.0

Sharon Graham is the first to have secured a place on the ballot in the race to succeed Len McCluskey as the general secretary of Unite the Union after receiving nominations from 176 local branches.

Commenting on the contest today, the union’s executive officer for organising and leverage told LabourList that it is time for Unite the Union to “do what it says on the trade union tin” and “take on bad bosses”.

“This is an important milestone for my campaign. I’m particularly pleased to have nominations from some of Unite’s biggest industrial branches,” Graham said.

“That shows my campaign for the union to get back to the workplace and build the union is growing. It’s time for Unite to do what it says on the trade union tin – fight for better wages and conditions and take on bad bosses. We can then drive the politics from that arena.”

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

“Our power is rooted in the workplace,” Graham told members 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.”

The Unite general secretary election got underway last month when incumbent Len McCluskey officially announced his retirement to the executive, allowing the runners and riders for the top job to formally launch their campaigns.

Graham is running alongside rival candidates assistant general secretary for manufacturing Steve Turner, politics and legal chief Howard Beckett and former regional secretary Gerard Coyne, who are all 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.

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”.

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, also joined the race started last month.

“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.”

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

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, officially launched his campaign on April 18th. He 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.

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