Seldom do trade union stories grip the media as much as the Unite general secretary election did. Though, as discussed previously, much of this coverage was focused on the wrong things, for the wrong reasons. The election of Sharon Graham, a candidate who prior to her election had around two thousand followers on twitter, took many by surprise. Much has been said on how Graham won, but how did Steve Turner and Gerard Coyne lose? And what can we learn from the election?
Coyne did well to win enough nominations to get on the ballot; after all, the main reason the nomination threshold was so high was chiefly to prevent Coyne running again after coming so close in 2017. A further obstacle Coyne faced was that his network of support(sympathetic stewards and paid officers who contributed to his 2017 campaign) in the Midlands, was supposed to have been dismantled after Howard Beckett replaced him as West Midlands Regional Secretary in 2017. However, given that Beckett was presumably placed in charge of dismantling this network it is perhaps no surprise that Coyne was still able to mount a challenge.
Once Coyne’s campaign began in earnest, it almost became a parody of itself. With most of the reporting on his campaign coming through outlets like The Times, it often appeared as though he was trying to appeal more to the commentariat than Unite members. Coyne received considerable attention from much of the press which painted him as the most sensible candidate. Looking at the vote share, this evidently mattered to members less than it did the commentariat. Unite members obviously wanted reform, hence voting for Graham, but they appeared to have preferred a candidate with more bite. Ultimately, Coyne’s chance to win Unite was 2017, by 2021 his moment had gone.
While Coyne’s defeat was predictable and not that eye-catching, Turner’s loss is significant. Despite the best efforts of Beckett, Turner ended up being the continuity candidate. This meant he had a lot of Unite’s bureaucratic machinery on side and was the favourite to win. For instance, Turner had all of Unite’s regional secretaries backing him and conventional wisdom usually dictates that regional secretaries can deliver the votes necessary for a win. There’s no doubt that the regional secretaries delivered some votes, but it was not enough for Turner. This indicates that Unite’s regional secretaries are more detached from their shop-floor activists than they should be. Of equal interest is Turner losing a lot of votes in the manufacturing industry, despite being head of Unite’s Manufacturing Sector, raising questions about how Graham’s campaign was able to better organise votes in this sector than Turner.
Turner also received a lot of support from the left media, this ultimately meant that a lot of his ideas never came under much scrutiny. For instance, Turner made a point of saying he would be the “greenest general secretary ever”. Driving a ‘green recovery’ is a commendable aim, but it was never asked how precisely a general secretary can achieve this. Equally, Turner’s “one call that’s all” was an interesting idea, and some other unions do have a member phone advice service, but this seemed to place too much responsibility on the worker and not appreciate how much members need on the ground support and representation.
Turner’s failure to attend the LBC hustings was emblematic of the complacency that engulfed his campaign – dodging the most high profile moment to sell himself to the largest live audience of the entire campaign. Though perhaps Turner’s greatest indictment was that he felt he had to strike a deal with Howard Beckett. Sharon Graham says this deal was offered to her first, and would have seen her serve only one term before endorsing Beckett as her successor.
This brings us to Howard Beckett who, prior to dropping out the race to support Turner, ran a campaign built on sand and fuelled by entitlement. He believed that he was the chosen successor to Len McCluskey but failed to secure the nomination of United Left. After this, he set up Unite Unity Left (prior to McCluskey announcing he would stand down, Beckett had joined Unite Alliance, which ultimately voted unanimously against endorsing any candidate for this election) and ran anyway, despite previously saying that the left could not afford to split the vote.
The warning signs for Beckett were present even during the nomination stage, he received the third most nominations, beating only Gerard Coyne – who was not even supposed to be able to clear the nomination threshold. Many of Beckett’s nominations came from community branches, meaning they would not translate into many votes. Thus, Beckett’s only hope of victory was to bully one of Turner or Graham to fall in behind him so he could benefit from their organisational base.
When neither Turner or Graham would give way to Beckett, Beckett was forced to compromise and fall in behind Turner. Turner announced he would run on a “Blended manifesto”, which was negotiated with Beckett, but never published. One idea that was made public was Beckett being given responsibility for managing Unite in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Though if Unite’s regional officials in these countries, who currently have considerable freedom, would have been particularly amenable to having Beckett as their new boss would’ve been an interesting counterfactual had Turner won.
Certainly, the deal between Beckett and Turner made it easier for Graham to present herself as an outsider to the ‘boys’ club’ and it is likely that Beckett’s behaviour while he was still a candidate will have alienated many. Ultimately, Beckett may have been more of a burden than a blessing for Turner. There are questions to be asked over whether Beckett’s behaviour from the moment he lost the United Left nomination cost his faction the chance of winning. It is quite possible that Graham’s campaign and organising would have won the day anyway, but Beckett doing everything he could to weaken his own side (his campaign was very critical of Turner prior to the deal) will not have helped. It will be interesting to see if the new regime deems Beckett as indispensable as McCluskey did.
Aside from the flaws in the other candidates’ campaigns, there is also the overriding question of will the media, much of which covered this election poorly, learn from this election and improve their coverage of trade unions in the future? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not. Much of the coverage of Graham’s victory has already been about what her victory means for Labour. Too little of the focus has been on what happened in the election, what the result might indicate about the direction of trade unionism in Britain today or what obstacles Graham faces in implementing her manifesto. The most significant take-away from this election to the wider trade union movement is: there is no substitute for shop-floor organising, everything else is secondary. The influence of the media on proceedings was negligible and the influence of twitter nil. Graham’s campaign won through the hard graft of organising. The repercussions of this election for the trade union movement remain to be seen. However, Should Graham be able to transfer her successful track-record in industrial disputes to her new role (for instance, by winning at Amazon), it will be interesting to see the face of British trade unionism as a whole could look very different.