Sharon Graham Elected As Unite Union's First Female General Secretary

Leftwinger backed by the Socialist Workers Party signals end of Len McCluskey era
Sharon Graham
Sharon Graham

Sharon Graham has been elected the first woman leader of the trade union Unite, ballot results leaked to HuffPost UK have confirmed.

Leftwinger Graham secured 46,696 votes in the race for general secretary, ahead of favourite Steve Turner on 41,833 votes. Centrist candidate Gerard Coyne came third with 35,334 votes.

With 124,147 votes cast in total, Graham’s share was 37.6%, Turner’s 33.7% and Coyne’s 28.5%. The turnout was around 12% of the one million members who were sent ballot papers.

The result marks a clean break with Len McCluskey’s 10-year reign at the head of the UK’s second biggest union, which has for years been Labour’s biggest donor.

McCluskey, who has been highly critical of Keir Starmer, had endorsed second placed Turner, who was his assistant general secretary and key ally.

Graham, who heads the union’s national network of organisers and was backed by the Socialist Workers Party and former Militant activists, has previously warned there will be “no blank cheque” for Labour if she won the contest.

Some senior figures within the party said they were relaxed about her election because she had campaigned to shift Unite’s focus away from Labour’s internal battles and towards the workplace.

Starmer himself tweeted his congratulations on her historic breakthrough as the first female general secretary in the union’s history.

But although Graham’s campaign slogan was “It’s Westminster versus the workplace: Back to the workplace”, it remains unclear how the union will use its influence on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).

Former Unite NEC rep Howard Beckett, who backed Turner but has been suspended from the party over a tweet calling for Priti Patel to be deported, staged one online walkout and had said it was time for Starmer to quit.

One senior union source said: “Sharon will be completely disinterested in Labour’s internal warfare. It’s all about the workplace now. If I were Keir, I’d be relieved the Len years are over.”

However, Graham has made clear she won’t let the union be taken for granted and told the BBC this summer she would operate “payment by results” to judge Starmer’s leadership on delivering workers’ rights.

Another insider said few in Labour could forecast exactly what impact Graham would have on the party, largely because her team was relatively unknown compared to Turner and Coyne’s.

“It’s quite unpredictable which way she will go, but she does seem uninterested in Labour,” they said.

The 51-year-old Londoner, who has been with the union and its predecessors for more than 20 years, led her first unofficial strike aged just 17, leading a successful walkout in protest at wages and working hours.

She has pledged to grow trade union membership in the private sector, securing better rights for workers at firms like Amazon and in the hospitality industry.

Unite’s executive council is still controlled by McCluskey’s United Left grouping and could have significant influence and its re-election won’t take place until early 2023, insiders pointed out.

In a statement Graham said: “Our members expect their union to be in their corner so I was proud to stand on a manifesto that pledged to put our members and our workplaces first. I will deliver on those promises.

“As general secretary, I will put all the power of our union into defending their jobs, improving their pay and protecting their rights.

“Bad bosses take note. A strong Unite is the best defence that our members can have - my focus now is to build that strength.”

She later added: “We won because of the army of volunteers in my campaign who stood against the stream and, month after long month, battled to deliver our vote.”

McCluskey said that Graham’s victory “reaffirms her as the most formidable campaigning force in our movement”.

“It’s a fantastic achievement and I am very proud to be handing over to our first woman general secretary. Sharon has been a valued and close friend an integral part of my senior team throughout my time in office.”

Coyne, who had run McCluskey close in the 2017 general secretary election, also congratulated Graham but urged her to inject more transparency in the union’s finances in the wake of £100m spending on a union hotel and conference centre in Birmingham.

“Sharon has promised to stop Unite meddling in the Labour Party, to focus on workplace issues and to give members better value for their money. Those are all priorities I have long campaigned for,” he said.

“To achieve them, she will need to open up Unite’s £200m annual spending to proper scrutiny and accountability, and engage more of the members in our democracy. This will help drive up turnout in future elections, and that is something all those in our union movement should be fighting for.”

Union sources said Turner could be kept on as assistant general secretary although it is seen as unlikely that Beckett will remain in post.

Turner said: “I share Sharon’s aspirations to grow our union, build confident workplace organisation and above all ensure that our members and reps always come first.”

The impact of Graham’s election on the wider union movement is unclear, with one insider suggesting that she was unlikely to take a “clubbable” approach with the TUC or the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (known as TULO).

Grassroots group Momentum welcomed Graham’s victory, with co-chair Gaya Sriskanthan saying: “Unite members have made their voices heard. They want a union that organises, that builds power in the workplace, and that uses its leverage to take on bad bosses.”

Britain’s biggest union, Unison, also elected its first woman leader earlier this year when Christine McAnea succeeded veteran Dave Prentis.

The low turnout in the election was in line with other trade union elections, although activists point out that the Tory government imposes a legal ban on online voting for unions and postal ballots only are allowed. Online voting in Labour NEC elections yielded a 27% turnout.

But the 12% turnout means that Graham won just 4.7% of those eligible to vote, Turner won 4.2% and Coyne 3.5% of an estimated electorate of one million Unite members.

Unite has 1.2 million members but not all of them are eligible to vote.


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