What is at stake in Unite

Chris Jones a trade union activist from Greater Manchester writes on what the General Secretary election at Unite means for the left and the TU movement.


The current election for General Secretary of Unite has brought into focus all the accumulated problems and setbacks that have weakened Unite, and indeed the wider trade union and working class movement, over several decades.

The history of the last 30 years has been one of declining militancy, falling living standards and falling union membership. On the back of this, a crisis of strategy has intensified. Within Unite the dominant group, the United Left, has seen its authority weakened as it has failed to deliver on so many fronts. In the last decade two General Secretary election campaigns by left critics of the United Left have offered a good alternative but failed to win. The right issues were raised and solid support for a new direction gained.

The threat in the current election is entirely from the right. Two candidates from within the existing central leadership (originally three) are opening the door to an established right winger who is offering nothing positive for hard pressed members. The left is intensively debating which is the best of the two left candidates, and in that debate many of the criticisms of the UL`s strategy are being raised. Unfortunately, the debate has become centred around a false dichotomy between workplace focus and Labour Party focus (even worse when described as industrial verses political).

The central strategic question for the left should be how to rebuild the activist base and militancy of the union and move away from being a service provider run by a full-time apparatus. Many branches are moribund and sitting on piles of cash. Some only meet when a campaign machine wants a nomination in the increasingly meaningless desire to have the most nominations in the voters’ pack. Branches and Regional and National Sector Committee participation is frequently minimal with little authority to do very much. Area Activists open meetings could be a place of networking and solidarity building but aren`t taken seriously. Committees are often just places from which office holders can be elected to higher bodies. Some activists can live their lives in meetings with little more than the odd policy statement to show for it.

The defeat of Corbynism was a shock for the UL. In many ways they had relied on a radical administration as a way out of the movement’s impasse. The right-wing candidate is making much out of this. But he will not withdraw from the Labour Party, he will be heavily involved as a Starmer ally, returning to the good old days of backing up `moderation`. Unite needs to maintain its Labour Party involvement until a new more radical option is available, fighting for policy change in conjunction with workplace and community campaigning. Such a direction would clarify the need for a new party.

So where do we go from here – a few opening thoughts. In many ways this will be the same whoever is General Secretary. We need a new left that is democratic and decentralised, accepts the diversity that exists across the left, is not a vote machine but is activist building, that turns fulltimers into support workers for branches. We need to organise all members into branches that function and welcome all members as potential activists. Community links both via the Community branches and campaigns such as Kill the Bill need better recognition and integration.

It does matter who wins the GS election. Life will be easier with a left leader. But if that means the UL carries on as before there will be a mountain to climb. The author nominated Sharon Graham, many comrades reluctantly back Steve Turner as they believe he is best able to hold off the right, others want to stick with Graham. Our tasks are far bigger than this vote. The next few weeks will be a bare knuckle ride. The next few years will be much harder.

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