What are the Unite union leadership candidates saying in the first week of voting?

McCluskey reveals who he's backing, while candidates add their voices to workplace disputes. Pictured (L-R) - Turner, Coyne, and Graham.

Voting opened this Monday in the race to lead Unite, the Labour-affiliated union with 1.2m members in the UK and Ireland.

After left-winger Howard Beckett dropped out to support fellow Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner, three candidates remain – moderate candidate Gerard Coyne, who came a close second to Len McCluskey in 2017; Workers’ Unite-backed candidate Sharon Graham, who is focusing on workplace issues; and current Assistant General Secretary for manufacturing Steve Turner, backed by the influential United Left group, and chair of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

Unite has around half a million members who are affiliated to the Labour party, making it the party’s largest affiliate – and a top donor, even after cutting funding to the party last year.

Turner received the most branch nominations (525) in the run up to the vote, followed by Sharon Graham (349) and Gerard Coyne (196). However, branches vary widely by size, meaning it is rarely translates directly into support.

The vote is likely to be split, which alongside a possible low turnout (it was 12% in 2017), makes predicting the result difficult. Each candidate is presenting themselves as the frontrunner.

But what are they talking about in the first week of voting?

Steve Turner

On Tuesday, Turner secured the official the support of outgoing General Secretary Len McCluskey, calling it a ‘huge honour’: “I want to thank Len for the trust he’s placing in me to now lead our great union on the next stage of its journey. Len’s support recognises that I am the only candidate with the experience, integrity and vision necessary to take our union forward.

“The stakes could not be higher. The economy and the world of work are changing at a frightening pace and now, more than ever, we need a united, vocal and confident union to face the challenges and meet the opportunities ahead,” Turner said, adding: “I’m proud to have won support from right across our union – every sector, region and nation.”

Turner has also slammed new proposals from the government, first revealed on Left Foot Forward, which will ‘shackle’ trade unions.

The left-wing candidate is currently self-isolating, but has been congratulating reps and members at Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, who have secured the long-term future of their site – and sending messages of solidarity to workers at the GKN Automotive in Erdington, where 500 jobs are under threat. In an interview, he expressed his ‘disappointment’ with Keir Starmer’s leadership, but noted he was running for ‘leadership of Unite, not the Labour party’.

In a message likely to be disputed by Gerard Coyne, ex-candidate Howard Beckett – who is now backing Turner – used Twitter to criticise Coyne on Wednesday. “[He] says he would change Unite. I agree. Industrial action would be stopped or repudiated; Community membership would end; Political Schools for activists would end; challenging Labour would end; support for legal cases that carry risk would end. The Sxn would be in,” Beckett wrote.  In an email to supporters on Tuesday, Beckett added: “Steve Turner and I do share the same emphasis, the same vision for our union moving forward and the same passion to make sure that the leadership is on the left for the next four years and beyond.”

Turner and Beckett have a ‘joint programme’, which includes backing for a new Unite TV service, and more devolution to the nations and regions. The left-wing frontrunner is also pledging to fight for furlough to be extended to 2022, after taking a leading role in the negotations for the original government scheme.

Sharon Graham

‘Workplace’ candidate Graham has hit out at recent abuse she has received online, after refusing to step down as a candidate for the Unite the Union General Secretary Election.

In the press, she has used voting week to criticise McCluskey’s backing of Turner, saying the ‘unprecedented intervention’ in the election ‘has the look of a desperate attempt to boost Steve Turner’s failing campaign’: “The penny has dropped that Sharon is now the one to beat…The two men left in the race represent the past, the union establishment. Only Sharon stands for real change.” Graham has previously campaigned for McCluskey, but says she is not part of the ‘union machine’.

Her social media channels have pushed calls to ‘get back to the workplace’, criticising rows with the Labour party. As the only female candidate, she is also fronting her experience as a woman, with her campaign tweeting that she has ‘walked in our shoes, she has been fighting and winning for workers since she was 17’. Graham would be the union’s first female leader, and urged members to ‘make history’.

On Tuesday, she hit out at the policing bill, writing that it would ‘destroy the tradition of the right to protest as well as a bring a clear attack on the travelling community’: “We won’t bow down to this attempt to restrict Trade Union organising & protesting.”

She also demanded a 15% pay rise for NHS staff, saying it was the ‘minimum’ members deserve, while using the first day of voting to share airline workers’ branch Mixed Fleet Unite’s backing for her candidacy.  

In an interview with Red Pepper magazine this week, she said she opposed ‘further regionalising our industrial structures’ – which is backed by Gerard Coyne and Steve Turner – calling it a ‘recipe for disaster’. Both Graham and Turner rebuffed calls for disafilliation from Labour.

Gerard Coyne

In an email to supporters on Monday, the self-described ‘mainstream’ candidate Coyne said: “The choice is simple – more of the same or real change in Unite,” in an attempt to pitch Graham and Turner as the left-wing ‘establishment’ of the union.

Coyne is pushing to reduce what he says is Unite’s current focus on the Labour party, rather than industrial issues. His final video pledged to ‘make jobs and pay Unite’s number one priority again’, pledging a two year subs freeze and a £10m skills fund for training reps and members.

Like Graham, Coyne mocked current GS McCluskey’s backing of Turner, writing: “Now Len has thrown his weight behind Steve Turner, Sharon [Graham] must be feeling disappointed. Personally, I’m delighted. It makes the choice clearer; if you want real change in Unite, vote for me. If you want more of the same, vote for either of the internal continuity candidates.”

Coyne has visited striking workers at Shropshire’s GKN Auto Wheels and Structures this week, writing: “These workers have done their bit to keep the economy going during the pandemic. It’s only right that they now get a pay rise, especially with living costs now rising. I urge GKN to agree to their fair and reasonable demands.”

GKN Auto Wheels and Structures was bought by a private equity firm in 2020 and during its 100-year history produced Spitfires and now supplies companies such as JCB, and workers are fighting changes to redundancy packages. Coyne also used a video on Sunday to call for government investment in shipbuilding.

Despite being seen as the candidate closest to Labour’s Keir Starmer, in a May BBC interview, Coyne made clear his focus will ‘not be on Westminster’ – a message echoed by Sharon Graham. As you might expect, in the middle of a jobs crisis, all three candidates have prioritised talking about industrial issues this week – rather than Westminster.

Voting runs until the 26th August.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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