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25 August 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 9:11pm

Why Sharon Graham’s election as Unite general secretary has pleased all wings of Labour

The victory of someone focused on workplace issues is viewed as good for the party and the trade union movement.  

By Ailbhe Rea

Sharon Graham has been elected the first female general secretary of Unite, in a shock result in the race to replace Len McCluskey as head of the UK’s second largest trade union and the biggest donor to the Labour Party.

She received 37.7 per cent of the vote, beating Steve Turner, the left-wing, McCluskey-endorsed candidate who was considered the front-runner. He received 33.8 per cent of the vote and Gerard Coyne, the centrist candidate thought to have been privately favoured by Keir Starmer, came third with 28.5 per cent. A total of 124,147 votes were cast: Graham received 46,696, Turner 41,833 and Coyne 35,334. 

“I’d say the boys are a bit worried,” Graham, Unite’s national organiser, remarked in an interview during the campaign, which saw her receive misogynistic abuse after she refused to stand aside to allow Turner to be the sole left candidate against Coyne. Her refusal to leave the race clear for her two more prominent male rivals only strengthened her case to Unite members and she trounced home with a grass-roots campaign focused on women’s rights, a track record of successful deployment of leverage in industrial disputes, and a message that the union needs to return its focus to workers’ rights rather than the machinations of Westminster. 

Her victory means figures on all sides of the Labour Party have something to be pleased about. Graham is on the left, but Labour moderates and Starmer allies are heartened by the change of style and approach that her leadership will bring, as the McCluskey era comes to a decisive end. “She owes nothing to the group of people around McCluskey who attempted to block her from standing,” says one figure from the Labour right. Figures from the left, meanwhile, are pleased to see an impressive organiser clinch victory, even if she wasn’t their preferred candidate. 

But overall, there is a quiet sense within Labour that Sharon Graham’s victory will be good for both the party and the trade union movement. “We’ve both lost our way over recent decades,” says one MP from the Labour left, who believes, like many others, that unions have become too embroiled in the day-to-day minutiae of Labour politics to the detriment of their core organising work, and vice versa. “This realignment is part of the road back.” 

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