It is not putting workers’ interests first to ignore politics, argues John Westmoreland, as Unite Leader, Sharon Graham, absents herself from Labour Conference
Sharon Graham’s election as Unite General Secretary was a clear victory for the left as the candidate favoured by the Labour right, Gerard Coyne, was roundly defeated. Graham fought on the slogan ‘back to the workplace’, and dismissed her rivals as being too obsessed with Westminster.
Her promise to withhold Unite funding for Labour, saying there would be “no blank cheque”, was popularly received by members who detest Starmer’s feeble opposition.
Graham’s focus on a fightback in the workplace, and talk of putting members interests first, has generated a good deal of excitement on the left, and rightly so. However, there was always a concern about Graham’s anti-politics stance, and her decision to skip the Labour Party conference shows it to be well-founded.
A missed opportunity
When the news of Starmer’s proposals to scrap the OMOV system of electing the leader came out, Graham rightly called this out as undemocratic saying: “Our membership, the lifeblood of our party and many of whom are committed trade unionists, must be respected.” But skipping the conference means her opposition to Starmer’s anti-democratic proposals will end there.
This is a huge mistake. Graham’s message of putting workers’ interests before the political fortunes of Labour would be very well received within Labour’s ranks, and from those who have been suspended and expelled, not least Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer’s Labour has no vision of an alternative to Tory neoliberalism, and no idea about how to fight it. Graham could have spoken up for the millions affected by the £20 cut to Universal Credit. She could have spoken up for workers having to pay increased National Insurance. And she could have demanded that Labour fight on a policy of repealing the anti-trade-union laws.
Unite members in the workplace are affected by politics. In sectors like education, health and local government the impact is obvious: pay freezes, workload and cuts. Starmer should be confronted by the extent of this injustice, and Unite members should watch their General Secretary make the case for them.
It should be added that Unite members have other concerns that Labour should be talking about. Tory racism and climate damage are political issues that workers’ leaders need to champion constantly, if we are to achieve meaningful unity.
Sharon Graham, by not attending the Labour conference and dismissing it as “white noise”, is simply wrong. She is set to miss a massive opportunity to put working-class interests – the workplace - at the forefront of national politics.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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