I’m the chair of Hackney and Islington Unite Community. I’m urging people to vote for Steve Turner in the Unite General Secretary elections. So is my branch.
But it didn’t start out that way. As my story is not unusual it seems worth sharing.
I’ve been an active trade unionist all my working life – NALGO, TGWU, MSF, Unison – depending on where I was working. I was a shop steward in most of those places and active at branch and sometimes regional and national levels.
I joined Unite Community about six years ago when that became the appropriate place to be and became branch chair four years ago. Most of the activists in our branch of over 300 members are similar to me – we have been active in unions for decades and see Unite Community as a good place to continue that dynamic.
When the General Secretary elections were called our branch agreed to call a hustings to decide which of the left candidates – Howard Beckett, Sharon Graham or Steve Turner to back. (No one suggested we invite right winger Gerard Coyne – and no one nominated him either). The branch overwhelmingly nominated Beckett by 21 votes with 3 for Turner and 2 for Graham.
Unions should be political
My personal support for Beckett was not based primarily on the role he was then playing in Unite’s delegation on Labour’s National Executive Committee, but on the platform he was promoting for taking the union forward – as well as on the energy and determination he showed in this. I saw him on picket lines supporting Unite members- and others – organising against fire and rehire – but I also saw him speak at Kill the Bill protests.
I’m an active member of the Labour Party, but unions need to be political because our members need to be defended not only when we are exploited in the workplace but when we face deportation, police harassment, poor housing and so much more. Winning victories – or at least beating back attacks on our communities and our class in all these spheres can only strengthen our ability – and our confidence – to beat back the bosses. Without that organising too many of us have both hands tied behind us.
Many Unite activists I know, in my branch, in other Community branches and in different industrial sectors were concerned that others on the left, including supporters of each of the three left candidates, seemed very complacent that Coyne wouldn’t get on the ballot paper. After the last General Secretaries election in.2017, where the gap between McCluskey and Coyne was under 6000 votes, the left on the NEC changed the rules to make it harder to get on the ballot. Some argued this would keep Coyne out.
Apart from the fact that there is a real danger in relying on bureaucratic manoeuvres to defeat political opponents in general, this complacency was worrying. Judging how union members as a whole think on the basis of those of us who regularly attend meetings is not only foolish but dangerous in the face of a rightwing opponent like Coyne – with his friends in powerful places.
So when the nominations were published and all four candidates were on the ballot paper I certainly took a sharp intake of breath. I was relieved to hear that discussions were taking place between the 3 left candidates – in my view it was critical to agree one candidate to oppose Coyne. I wasn’t and don’t suggest that this should have been a simple matter of the left candidate with the greatest number of nominations – Steve Turner as it happens – claiming victory and telling everyone else to back him without taking on board any of the key issues of their platforms.
I was very relieved when Howard Beckett and Steve Turner issued a joint statement on x but disappointed and concerned that Sharon Graham was still going it alone. That doesn’t at all mean I support some of the attacks that have been made on her which have a sexist dynamic. This is unacceptable in any circumstances – and especially from those that claim to be on the left.
My branch brought its July meeting forward so we could discuss the situation before the ballot papers went out. We unanimously agreed in the circumstances to campaign for Turner as the best way to defeat Coyne – and to contact as many members as possible to urge them to do so.
I can’t speak for everyone and I don’t claim to. For me the reasons for doing this are because I think the Beckett/Turner statement and subsequent developments have seen the inclusions of key elements of Becket’s campaign.
It’s true as some Graham supporters have pointed out that it’s impossible to judge whose campaign is stronger just on the basis of branch nominations. That’s one of the many reasons I would like to have seen the three left campaigns come together – and it’s the main reason activists need to be organising at the grassroots to get every member to get out to vote. But on the balance of mathematical probability Turner must surely stand a better chance – that’s why some other activists who previously backed Graham have now reluctantly voted for Turner.
Coyne’s election would be a disaster for every sector in Unite – every industry and Unite community. His politics is that of class collaboration with the bosses which will undermine the union in every workplace and industry. That’s why he has friends in high places on the Labour right and why every trade unionist in Britain should be worried about his potential election
And whoever is elected there is a huge amount of work to do to build a fighting left which can really involve the energies and ideas of all the left candidates – but if Coyne wins the prospects of being able to do that are very bleak indeed.
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