With both the TUC and Labour holding annual conferences one after the other, much attention was on the unions’ newest leader, Sharon Graham. Her election as general secretary of the UK and Ireland’s most important union, Unite, came as a shock to most of the commentariat.
In this, the first part of a three-post blog series, I’ll explore why this might be the case and also the wider significance of Graham’s election.
The shock surrounding this election result is partly due to the extremely poor level of media coverage of trade unions in the UK today, reflecting the virtual extinction of the industrial correspondent. It reinforces the importance of research projects like our own on trade unions.
It is also partly explained by the media confusion around the fact that there were initially three candidates regarded as standing on the Left (including Graham) and that one, Howard Becket, stood down in support of the favourite, Steve Turner, in order to prevent the victory of the Right’s candidate, Gerard Coyne.
With Steve Turner gaining the most nominations of all of the candidates and the official support of the union’s internal left caucus and that of the powerful regional secretaries, the election was seen by many as a straight fight between him and Coyne (who was supported by the Murdoch press and "centrist" Labour MPs like Jess Phillips).
Despite repeated appeals to stand down so as "not to split the left vote", Graham refused, arguing that her candidacy was of the left but had a wide appeal beyond traditional left/right divides in the union. In the event, she won convincingly, with Turner coming second and Coyne a poor third, with his vote slumping from 40% in the previous election to just 28%.
The commentary both before and after the election has largely focused on its impact on the Labour party. To a certain extent this is understandable, as Unite has been Labour’s largest financial backer, has a substantial block of votes at Labour’s conference (around 12%) and has three members on the party’s National Executive.
However, it completely ignores the fact that Unite organises over a million workers in every part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, in every sector, in white- and blue-collar jobs, permanent and precarious positions, full-time and part-time, employed and gig workers, black, white, young old, male and female. It is marginally smaller than UNISON, the public service union, but is far more influential and strategically positioned in the UK economy, and that is why Graham’s election matters.
After the result, the punditocracy seemed as confused as ever about what Graham’s election signified, unsure whether they were witnessing a victory for "moderation" and "common sense" or not. The FT thought her election could give Labour leader, Starmer, "a reprieve" with her focus on the workplace. The Guardian viewed her as someone who would bring "a calmer but more distant relationship with the Labour party." Tom Hazeldine in New Left Review claimed that "champagne corks will be popping again in the office of the Leader of the Opposition". The Telegraph agreed, declaring that she would "make peace with Sir Keir Starmer".
The very next day, the paper performed a screeching U turn, finally noticing that the union had an existence outside internal Labour politics in the world of work, with a piece on the Tory party’s co-chairman call for Starmer to condemn Graham’s ‘‘'sinister’ campaigns against Britain’s top employers."
The Times wanted it both ways, arguing in a leading article that both Corbyn and Starmer would be disappointed although "If she is true to her word and returns Britain’s second-largest union to its core business of representing members’ interests, her triumph might prove positive" – positive in this instance meaning supportive of Labour’s shift to the Right.
The Labour leader also seemed mystified. Before the result, the Independent informed its readership that "There is no doubt that Keir Starmer wants Coyne to win." Then he seemed to view the defeat of Steve Turner as a victory and to see a positive side to Graham’s win. But no sooner had he welcomed her victory than the Mail on Sunday reported that "he was forced to distance himself from Labour’s biggest union backer last night after its new Left-wing boss vowed to break the law to bring employers to heel if necessary."
The media’s general ignorance about, and lack of interest in, trade unions, combined with its insistence in viewing the Unite election through a Labour party prism has prevented them from understanding the significance of the election.
Read part two: So who is Sharon Graham and what does she stand for?
Image provided by Unite the union. Sharon Graham on the picket line with Weetabix staff, 29 September 2021.