All Unite general secretary candidates reach ballot. What does the left do now?

Sienna Rodgers
© Andrew Skudder/CC BY-SA 2.0

All four candidates in the Unite the Union general secretary election have secured the number of branch nominations required to qualify for the ballot paper. This raises questions for the three candidates considered to be on the union’s left, who will be under pressure to reach a compromise with the aim of keeping the union politically in line – more or less – with its current leadership.

In this initial stage of the race that will determine Len McCluskey’s successor, LabourList sources say that currently assistant general secretary (manufacturing) Steve Turner is out in front with more than 420 nominations, executive officer for organising and leverage Sharon Graham is next with almost 300, assistant general secretary (politics and legal) Howard Beckett is so far third with around 270 and Gerard Coyne has surpassed the obligatory 172 with 180. (Update, June 9th: These are the most recent figures I was told, but Beckett says he has at least 328, and his number may well be more up-to-date.) There may be around 75 still to be counted.

Some had been hopeful that a higher nominations threshold would prevent Coyne from standing again for the top job, but the challenger has qualified and supporters believe he could reach more than 200 nominations. A Unite source told LabourList that Coyne’s three rivals would now “have to do some deep thinking”. It is expected that they will meet with McCluskey soon and enter negotiations after the final nomination figures are known tomorrow.

Will anyone step aside to ensure that the left is not split and Coyne does not win under a first-past-the-post voting system? An ally of Sharon Graham has told LabourList “there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance” of her bowing out, both because “she’s the only woman in the field” and because “she has got the biggest breadth of support across industry, regions, you name it”. They added that if successful she would be the first woman to lead Unite, as well as “the first trade union leader who wears pearls”. Graham is known to have a strong base at shop stewards level thanks to her organising role in the union.

“The right wing will not get on the ballot,” Beckett predicted in February. “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. Will one of the assistant general secretaries stand down to give the other a chance? Turner has not only won the most nominations so far, but was also endorsed by United Left, so that seems unlikely, while some of Beckett’s supporters has said they would not campaign for any another candidate, which supports his case for staying in the race.

There are stark reminders going around that Coyne secured 41.5% of the vote in a two-way fight last time. Presenting himself as the contender with a “message of change” again, he has already criticised the “suggestion that there will be a grubby backroom deal” between his rivals, saying it would be “a betrayal of Unite members” and “show they are running scared”. The reality of the voting system means the union’s left will have to strike a deal, however, or risk a repeat of the UNISON result – though not winning this general secretary race would be significantly worse than that the recent UNISON or GMB leadership defeats, as in Unite’s case the left is incumbent.

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