Unite likely to be calmer but more distant with Labour after Graham win

Sharon Graham will become union’s first female general secretary after surprise victory

The Unite union is expected to develop a calmer but more distant relationship with the Labour party after the election of the leftwinger Sharon Graham as its first female general secretary on Wednesday.

Graham, who was the surprise winner in the three-way contest with 37.7% of the vote, was elected on a manifesto that said “we have tried our political project within Labour – it has failed”. She has said she intends to prioritise workplace organising in her new role.

One senior Labour party figure who knows her well predicted “a return to the days of Ron Todd” – meaning that while she might disagree with some of the party’s policies, she would not be preoccupied with actively trying to take control. Todd led the TGWU, a precursor of Unite, in the late 1980s.

Graham will replace Len McCluskey, who has run Unite since 2011 and relished his role as a high-profile Labour powerbroker, enthusiastically supporting Jeremy Corbyn and repeatedly denouncing any move by the party to the right.

McCluskey publicly backed Steve Turner, the Unite assistant general secretary, but he came second with 33.8% of the vote. Gerard Coyne, seen as the centrist candidate, received 28.5% of the vote.

Although there are 1.2 million Unite members, only 123,866 votes were cast, with Graham receiving 46,696, Turner 41,833 and Coyne 35,334.

Graham, a senior Unite official, was widely portrayed as the underdog in a contest that was initially presented as being primarily between Turner, the candidate of the Unite establishment and the left, and Coyne.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, welcomed Graham’s victory by tweeting: “Congratulations to @UniteSharon on her election as general secretary of Unite – the first ever woman to hold that role. I’m looking forward to working together to improve the lives of working people across the country.”

Graham said she had won because Unite members wanted change. In a reference to McCluskey’s focus on internal Labour politics, she said: “Unite members … have spoken. They want change. They have rallied, in their tens of thousands, to our demand that Unite should get back to the workplace and deliver what it says on the trade union tin – a relentless fight for jobs, pay and conditions.”

Labour officials admitted privately that there was some relief that Turner had been defeated. He ran in an informal alliance with another Unite official, Howard Beckett, who has called for Starmer to be replaced.

But another party source said: “Any of the three candidates would have led to an improvement in the relationship between Unite and Labour. At least the Len psychodrama is over. We may see more industrial agitation from her, but less political undermining of Keir. So she may produce a different type of challenge for him.”

Graham said during her campaign that she would not offer Labour a “blank cheque”, but Starmer’s team did not take this as an imminent threat to cut funding for the party. Unite is Labour’s biggest donor.

She also said she wanted to “ramp up the resources required to defend jobs”. She wants the union to develop a workers’ manifesto that will form the basis for the engagement with Labour on policy, and she has said that under her leadership the union will only back parliamentary candidates who have been shop stewards or union reps.

Graham has been a union organiser for more than 20 years and at Unite she has headed the organising and leverage department, which specialises in taking on hostile employers – including by putting pressure on multinationals through linking local disputes to a company’s interests worldwide. Unite claims her team has a “100% winning track record”.


Andrew Sparrow Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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