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Unite the Union balloon, TUC march 2012

Unite the Union balloon, TUC march 2012. Photo: It's No Game / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The upcoming election in Unite the Union is a test for the left at a critical time

The forthcoming elections for General Secretary of Unite the Union are an important test for the left. The union is not only one of the largest in Britain and of key strategic importance in certain industries, it has also played an important political role in recent years in supporting various campaigns and activities, and especially in its support for Jeremy Corbyn in his time as Labour leader. The union under the leadership of Len McCluskey has been attacked both in the right-wing media and by right wing Labour MPs for its support for left policies.

We are faced with the prospect of three left candidates to succeed McCluskey as general secretary. This is an unfortunate situation: the elections are first past the post in Unite so there is no possibility of those on the left transferring to another candidate and the reality is that the left vote will be split three ways if all get on the ballot paper. The very real danger is that if Gerard Coyne, the right wing and media favoured candidate, also gets on the ballot paper, he will win the general secretary because of this split vote. He came close to doing so against McCluskey last time.

This would be a disaster for the left. It would shift Unite to the right, reinforce the right inside the Labour Party and make it much harder for activists inside the union. Even at this late stage we would urge that agreeing one left candidate is of the utmost importance.

We have had two decades where many of the trade unions have been led by left figures, initially dubbed the ‘awkward squad’, who gave crucial support to campaigns against austerity, war, racism and many other issues. Those campaigns helped feed into support for Corbynism in 2015. A political approach to trade unionism is still essential, however the movement now finds itself at something of a watershed.

The trade unions, while scoring some important successes and attempting to defend workers’ living conditions against the ravages of austerity and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, have not yet managed to significantly increase levels of industrial action or membership. They face an employers’ offensive – most recently typified by British Gas ‘fire and rehire’ policies – which is using the present crisis to attack workers’ rights and conditions.

To defeat this will require a continued opposition to Tory policies and ideas but also a scale of combativity, workplace organisation and action which has been missing from trade union organisation for many years. It will need to be built from the bottom up through the activities of workers organising on the ground. No general secretary is capable of substituting for this work, but with a right-wing GS it will be much harder to do.

The three left candidates, Howard Beckett, Sharon Graham and Steve Turner, all have undoubted strengths, which have been evident in their past work and they would all make a serious contribution if elected. Each of the three candidates is supported by many good militants and activists. Whatever the outcome of this election, the left should not allow it to weaken or divide us further. The real task for all of us is how to strengthen the left and the militants inside the union and we will need to organise this whoever wins the election.

We are supporting Steve Turner in this election. He has played an important and positive role as chair of the People’s Assembly and that for us is one decisive factor, because we see the union’s involvement in such campaigns as essential in bringing together trade unionism with wider political questions. Another is that he is the official United Left candidate and that vote, however narrow, should be acknowledged. In doing so we recognise that others for whom we have great respect will make different choices. We hope that we can work together with them in support of the current bus disputes, against the redundancies on the horizon, and to ensure that we don’t return to the old normal after lockdown, and that we help strengthen rank-and-file organisation in the union.

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