As a frontline workplace rep working in the voluntary sector, I am supporting Sharon Graham as General Secretary of UNITE. I have been a member of the union for nearly 13 years and an Equality Rep for 11.5 years and a shop steward for the last year and a half. I also sit on the union’s London & Eastern LGBT+ committee and also on the national LGBT+ committee. I have witnessed first-hand the way that the union has concentrated way too much on gimmicks and sales pitches for everything from life insurance to shopping discounts but has not communicated on real matters of substance to the same degree with its members. The union has engaged in several important industrial disputes and I am particularly aware of those that have happened in my own sector where UNITE’s willingness to support workers far outstrips that of some other unions such as UNISON.
I was invited to join the dominant Left group in the union, United Left, but refused to do so. Not because they are on the Left but because of the way that they operate and some of the positions they have taken, including on Brexit. I watch how they operate at the regional Industrial Sector committee where they often shoot down motions or proposals that are in any way critical of the Labour Party and of UNITE’s relationship with it. Obviously, Len Mc Cluskey was their candidate and they control most of the seats on the Executive elected recently. It did not surprise me when Len supported Steve Turner in this election as Turner is clearly the continuity candidate. However, I also watched his recent interview with Aaron Bastani where he was asked about Starmer’s relationship with the Labour Party and replied that that was an issue for the MPs to decide. Throughout the interview, he twisted and turned and very much confirmed for me that he is a political chameleon. In the recent bus workers strike at Go North West in Manchester, for example, he criticised attacks on the Mayor of Manchester for not supporting the strike, whereas Sharon Graham, who effectively led the strike through her Leverage Department, was much more openly critical. This is one of the reasons why the bus workers there have now come out in support of Graham.
I must also put my cards on the table here and state that I am not a member of the Labour Party but neither are most of the members of UNITE. That does not mean that I am not political but that the fate of the Labour Party is of secondary importance to the fate of the union and its struggles for its members. This is essentially Sharon Graham’s position and one which I think is finding resonance with the membership. Also as a woman, Graham is challenging much of the inbuilt sexism in the union and promising to further support its equalities structures. As a gay man and a member of two of the union’s equalities committees, this is also important to me and while under Mc Cluskey the union has moved closer to having parity between the industrial and equalities structures (such as equalities reps sitting on industrial committees) it needs to go much further as we heard at the recent equalities conference.
This should, of course, have been a PR election because the main spectre at the feast is Gerald Coyne, the clear Right-wing candidate. His entering the fray has changed the electoral arithmetic completely and is the reason why Howard Beckett stood down in favour of Steve Turner. Pressure was also applied to Sharon to get her to do likewise. It would be politically myopic to deny that having two candidates from the Left stand against Coyne increases his likelihood of winning. This is the trump card that Steve Turner’s campaign has been playing as to why all those opposed to Coyne should support him. However, I believe that it is Sharon Graham’s campaign which is the stronger Left campaign against Coyne. It is spearheaded by shop stewards, many of whom were forced out of United Left for supporting her and supported by workers in many of the industries where her Leverage campaign has won significant victories, such as British Airways. Her branch nominations came as a surprise to many and were second to Turner’s. Also, some of the branches supporting Turner were moribund or dead branches where UL could control by mobilising. There is also the fact that many women members will support Sharon and the highest lay member in the union, the Chair of the Executive is supporting her. She has promised root and branch reform of the union and vehemently denies the charge that she is not political but wants a union that is political dictating terms to the politicians and not merely regarded as a cash cow for the Labour Party. She is also now supported by virtually all of the non-Labour Left and Ian Allinson, the last Left candidate who stood against Mc Cluskey has publicly endorsed her.
A friend long active in Unite Community recently told me why he’s supporting Sharon and I think that his view resonates with me. His points were:
- She wants to decouple the union from incessant factional infighting around the Labour Party and the “war within the Labour Party”
- Her refusal for UNITE to simply become a branch of the Labour Party
- She is not beholden to a clique of MPs to support her and and will have any truck with “deals for votes”
- Her distrust of reliance on politicians is admirable and well as her refusal to write blank cheques for political parties
- Her determination to re-establish and strengthen UNITE at workplace level and shun top down bureaucratic rule.
For all of these reasons, I believe that Sharon Graham is the best candidate.
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