Sharon Graham wins race to succeed Len McCluskey as Unite general secretary

Elliot Chappell
© Andrew Skudder/CC BY-SA 2.0

Unite the Union has announced Sharon Graham as the winner in the contest to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of one of the largest trade unions in the UK, representing 1.4 million members.

The result released today means that Graham, who has worked as the executive officer for organising and leverage at Unite, will become the first woman to lead the union and the general secretary of Labour’s largest affiliate.

Commenting on her victory this afternoon, Graham said: “I am honoured to have been elected by our members, and I understand that the trust that they have placed in me brings with it tremendous responsibility.

“Our members expect their union to be in their corner so I was proud to stand on a manifesto that pledged to put our members and our workplaces first. I will deliver on those promises.”

She added: “Unite is an incredible force for good in the UK and Ireland but I am fully aware of the huge challenges our members face in the workplace.

“As general secretary, I will put all the power of our union into defending their jobs, improving their pay and protecting their rights. Bad bosses take note. A strong Unite is the best defence that our members can have – my focus now is to build that strength.”

She ran against Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary for manufacturing backed by McCluskey, and Gerard Coyne, the former West Midlands regional organiser who ran against the outgoing general secretary in 2017.

Voting in the ballot was as follows (in alphabetical order):

Gerard Coyne – 35,334 (28.46%)

Sharon Graham – 46,696 (37.61%)

Steve Turner – 41,833 (33.69%)

Turnout: 123,863 (12%)

McCluskey said: “I thoroughly congratulate Sharon on her victory, which reaffirms her as the most formidable campaigning force in our movement. It’s a fantastic achievement and I am very proud to be handing over to our first woman general secretary.

“I have been hugely privileged to be at the helm of Unite for the past 11 years. Sharon has been a valued and close friend and an integral part of my senior team throughout my time in office so I know from experience that she is a talented, dedicated and passionate trade unionist. I have every faith that she will run our union in a manner true to its fighting back spirit.

“Sharon comes into office at a time of great uncertainty for our members and a challenging political environment. From assaults on workers’ rights to the fear that the end of furlough will bring with it increased and needless unemployment, the in-tray is full. But I know that she will build on our values and harness the talents of our great union in the service of our members and our movement.”

Graham, who described herself as the “the workplace candidate”, was the first candidate to secure a place on the ballot and had the second highest number of nominations. 349 branches nominated Graham, 525 backed Turner and 196 Coyne.

Turner had been widely seen as the frontrunner in the contest based on branch nominations, and picked up additional support after rival candidate Howard Beckett pulled out of the race and endorsed him.

But reports earlier this week of early sampling of returned ballots, based on 8,000 votes spread across 22 tables, suggested that the only female contender was in the lead in the competition to replace McCluskey.

Reacting to the result today, Turner thanked his campaign team for their work and said: “I’d like to offer my personal congratulations to Sharon on her election and wish her every success in her new role.

“Unite faces many challenges as our economy recovers from Covid; from demands for full employment in well-paid, decent jobs to a workers transition to address climate the climate crisis. I share Sharon’s aspiration to grow our union, build confident workplace organisation and above all ensure that our members and reps always come first.

“We need a strong union to continue to win both at work and in our communities and it is now more important than ever that our union comes together, determined and united.”

The result comes ahead of the first physical Labour Party conference since Keir Starmer became leader, which will be held in Brighton next month. Unite delegates conference have already been chosen and they decide as a delegation how to vote.

It also follows news that the party-affiliated union Unite, along with GMB, is holding an indicative ballot of members working for the party over potential compulsory redundancies as part of the reorganisation unveiled by general secretary David Evans last week.

Unite nominated Rebecca Long-Bailey in Labour’s leadership election and Richard Burgon to be Labour’s deputy leader in January last year. Coyne was supported by many Keir Starmer backers in the general secretary election.

Coyne said: “Congratulations to Sharon Graham, I wish her well as Unite’s next General Secretary. I also want to thank everyone who campaigned for me and the tens of thousands of members who voted for me.

“Sharon has promised to stop Unite meddling in the Labour Party, to focus on workplace issues and to give members better value for their money. Those are all priorities I have long campaigned for. To achieve them, she will need to open up Unite’s £200m annual spending to proper scrutiny and accountability, and engage more of the members in our democracy. Maybe then we will see turnout higher than 12% in our next General Secretary election.”

Starmer tweeted in response to the news: “Congratulations to @UniteSharon on her election as General Secretary of Unite – the first ever woman to hold that role. I’m looking forward to working together to improve the lives of working people across the country.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner also congratulated Graham, adding: “It’s great to see women leading our two largest unions, and I look forward to working with you to deliver a new deal for working people based on fair pay and strengthened rights at work.”

Jeremy Corbyn ally McCluskey was first elected as general secretary in 2010, and was twice re-elected to the position.

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