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26 August 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 10:27am

Sharon Graham’s Unite election victory should not come as a surprise

The true battle in the trade union’s general secretary election was not between left and right but between the leadership and rank-and-file members.

By Alex Maguire

Sharon Graham is the new Unite general secretary. She won the contest by a margin similar to the former general secretary Len McCluskey’s in 2017 (McCluskey won by 4.2 per cent, Graham by 3.9 per cent). And yet, to many, the result is a surprise. But it is clear that Graham ran the best campaign and enjoyed the most organised support in Unite.

This contest was widely covered as it was three left candidates (Howard Beckett, Steve Turner and Sharon Graham) vs one centrist/right candidate (Gerard Coyne), and it was typically speculated that the three left candidates would split the vote. But the result shows this is not a useful means of understanding trade union elections. Traditionally, the main internal divides within trade unions have been between the rank-and-file membership and the national leadership, or at least between institutional incumbents and reformers. Graham ran as a reformer, emphasising that Unite needed to return to the workplace and focus on delivering for its members.

While primarily running as a reformer, Graham was also something of a unity candidate because she was able to appeal to segments of both the institutional and reformist parts of Unite and the rank and file. Although Graham did not run as McCluskey’s successor (and signalled a clear break in approach from the outgoing general secretary), she also enjoyed the support of a significant portion of Unite’s Executive Council (unlike Coyne).

The result indicates that Graham took votes from both Coyne and Turner. Turner, as McCluskey’s anointed successor, planned to claim the votes that went to the latter in 2017. It can be safely assumed that Graham won the vast majority of the 17,143 votes that went to grassroots candidate Ian Allinson in 2017; her “back to the workplace” campaign chimed with many of his supporters. Equally, it can be assumed that Graham was largely responsible for the fall in Coyne’s vote (he won 53,544 votes in 2017 and 35,334 in 2021). Members who did not support McCluskey in 2017 are unlikely to have voted for Turner, the continuity candidate, this time around. But even this combination of votes would have left Graham short of her winning total of 46,696. Graham, therefore, will have taken votes off Turner too.

[See also: Why Sharon Graham’s election as Unite general secretary has pleased all wings of Labour]

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Graham’s campaign was able to secure these votes because it was dedicated and well run. It launched as soon as the contest was announced, in contrast to both Coyne and Beckett’s campaigns, which were slow to get started. Underpinning the effective campaign was a strong organising base that was a product of Graham leading Unite’s Organising and Leverage Department. Successful industrial action creates networks of activists and inspires confidence. Left to their own devices, most members will not vote (as demonstrated by low turnouts in recent union general secretary elections). The impact of Graham’s organising network and successful track record is demonstrated by the substantial support she won among the manufacturing sector, including the Ellesmere Port and Rolls Royce branches, which were crucial for McCluskey and Coyne, respectively, in 2017.

A further factor was the “women vote” – Graham was the only woman who stood, and throughout the contest made a point of not standing aside for, or doing any deals with, the male candidates. This may not have been a central reason for Graham’s vote share (approximately 27 per cent of Unite members are women and only around 12 per cent of the membership voted in this election) but it could well have been enough to put Graham ahead of Turner.

As the contest wore on, Graham’s campaign picked up momentum and new segments of her manifesto were periodically revealed (the other candidates gave away all their ideas at the start of the election), while her opponents stalled. Beckett and Turner were engaged in a civil war, while Coyne found that a substantial amount of his votes from 2017 were anti-McCluskey rather than pro-Coyne. The extent of Graham’s momentum was demonstrated by how Turner pushed Coyne as a threat from the right in an attempt to take votes off Graham and unite a fictional left vote.

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Ultimately, what Graham’s victory proves is that trade unions do not function like political parties, and that disciplined and relentless organising is key to winning. It also shows the limited influence that the media has on the outcome of these elections. Of all the candidates, Graham received by far the least coverage (though she did perform well in interviews) and still defeated the more prominent Turner and Coyne. But Graham, with her ambition for Unite to become a defining force in the workplace, will be the subject of much greater media interest from now on.