Who are the Unite general secretary candidates and what do they stand for?

It’s an election that will not only affect workers up and down the country but could have significant repercussions for the Labour party.

With the race to replace Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite the Union hotting up, we take a look at what the candidates stand for and what their plans are for a trade union which has 1.4 million members across construction, transport, logistics, manufacturing and other sectors.

It’s an election that will not only affect workers up and down the country but could have significant repercussions for the Labour party given that it’s the party’s most generous trade union funder.

Earlier today, the union released the numbers of valid branch nominations each of the four general secretary candidates have received, with all four securing enough support at this stage of the race to be included on the ballot paper before the union’s members.

Howard Beckett

Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary for legal and politics at the union, has received the third highest number of valid branch nominations, with 328 votes. Beckett is seen as a close aide of incumbent McCluskey and has currently been suspended by the Labour Party for tweeting that home secretary Priti Patel should be deported instead of refugees. Beckett has apologised and said he was angry to ‘see Muslim Refugees being deported on the morning of Eid al Fitr.’

Beckett, who was appointed to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee last year, has pledged to return influence to Unite’s members and to modernise the union and put economic equality at the heart of his campaign. He has backed a 15% pay rise for NHS and health care workers.

He has previously accused Labour leader Keir Starmer of punishing the working class over the Covid-19 pandemic. The solicitor is viewed as someone who would act as a bulwark against Starmer and has even pledged to set up Unite TV in a bid to curb the influence of GB News. 

Gerard Coyne 

Coyne is viewed as someone who is supportive of Keir Starmer but who wants to shift the focus away from Westminster and doesn’t want to be a ‘backseat driver for the Labour party’. He has come fourth with 196 valid branch nominations.

He told the BBC last month that his focus would be on ‘growing the union’ and making sure it is relevant for the 21stcentury and offering a ‘great service to members’. Coyne, who has been a member of the Labour party for more than 30 years, is viewed as the candidate of the Labour right. He has warned of  a ‘grubby backroom deal’ among the other three left leaning candidates,  Howard Beckett, Sharon Graham and Steve Tuner, after claims that one of them will have to drop out to avoid splitting the left vote. There are fears among Unite insiders that Coyne will come out on top after ballots are cast.

Coyne has called any deal among the candidates to keep him out as ‘anti-democratic’ and a betrayal of members. He missed out on leading the union in 2017 after a narrow defeat to Len McCluskey.  

He has pledged to defend jobs and focus on improving pay and conditions for workers. Coyne has also said he will review Unite’s £98m Birmingham hotel and conference centre and whether contracts that were handed out were ‘value for money’.

He says the choice in this election is between ‘Utopian fantasies’ and real change offering practical support for members.

Sharon Graham 

Sharon Graham who received the second highest number of branch nominations with 349 votes, has insisted she will not be the candidate dropping out of the race to prevent Coyne winning. She plans on becoming the union’s first female leader.

Supporters say her nominations give her a potential voting base of 250,000 members before the ballot takes place. Keen to highlight the support she has received from the likes of Hinkley point, London construction, Ireland construction and Vauxhall Ellesport, she has vowed to deliver an industrial programme to change the union.

She has also vowed to make the Union more democratic by giving shop stewards and reps more say over the decisions made in their name and has said that there will be no more ‘blank cheque for the Labour Party’.

“Under my leadership, we will only support future candidates who have been Union Shop Stewards or Reps and our relationship with the leadership will be governed by policy”, she says in her campaign manifesto.

Steve Turner 

Steve Turner has received the highest number of branch nominations thus far with 525 votes. He is seen in some quarters as the favourite to win the contest after securing the support of the United Left Faction, Unite’s largest left-wing group.

Turner has pledged to establish a new industrial strategy and green transition team in a bid to transition to a greener economy and has also vowed to develop a ‘Workers’ Greenprint’ for millions of new green jobs across our public and private sectors. Although seen as someone who is close to McCluskey, he is keen to differentiate from the current leader, with his Charter for Change campaign aimed at reconnecting Unite with its members, expanding its reach in new industries and shifting away from internal party divisions that have marred the Labour party in recent years.

He has previously warned that there is a danger the left vote will split as three of them stand against one centrist candidate. Seen as a pragmatist, Turner believes compromise isn’t a dirty word and prefers negotiation rather than confrontation to help his members. 

The replacement for McCluskey will be announced on 16 August.

Basit Mahmood is co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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