Last Friday, socialist candidate Howard Beckett took the magnanimous decision to stand down in the Unite general secretary contest, for the sake of left unity.
Until this point, there were three left candidates in the race: Howard Beckett, Steve Turner, and Sharon Graham. On the other side, Gerard Coyne is standing with the open backing of the Labour right wing and the establishment.
Recently, for example, Lord Peter Mandelson penned a letter in the Independent, calling for a vote for Coyne, in order to “clean up the union”. And this from a New Labour relic who also recently stated that “hard left factions attached to trade unions have got to go”.
This shows what is at stake in these elections – and what lies in store if Unite were to fall into the hands of the right wing. The ramifications for the whole of the left and the labour movement would be catastrophic.
Many on the left had assumed that Coyne would fail to reach the threshold of nominations required to make it onto the ballot. But in the end, all four candidates gained the necessary number of endorsements.
This led to understandable concern about the threat of a right-wing victory, with the danger of a split vote if there were three left candidates on the ballot. Such an outcome would be a disaster, given the important role that Unite has played in supporting the left of the labour movement in recent years.
In order to defeat the right-winger Coyne, Beckett has therefore dropped out of the race and called for his supporters to back Steve Turner. We respect Howard’s decision and the reasoning behind it.
All of the three left candidates are currently assistant general secretaries of the union. But their campaigns have all emphasised different questions.
Having narrowly won the backing of the union’s broad left last year, Turner was able to secure the largest number of branch nominations. He is seen as the ‘continuity’ candidate, having been Len McCluskey’s campaign manager for the past three Unite general secretary elections.
During the Corbyn years, Turner openly supported the left-wing Labour leader – in particular, through his role as chair of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
More recently, however, Turner has signalled that, if he became Unite general secretary, he would not openly challenge Keir Starmer. Instead, he would seek to compromise with the right wing.
“Sometimes it’s right to shout,” Turner stated in an interview with the Huffington Post. “But on some occasions diplomacy is best done privately.”
Similarly, he has suggested that he would oppose moves to replace right-wing Labour councillors. And he has praised the virtues of negotiating with the Tories and the bosses over taking militant action.
“The Tories are in power and the Tories hold the pen on decisions,” Turner remarked in the same HuffPost interview. “I’m in the room, I’m at the table. I’m not outside lobbing bricks over the wall.”
Also still in the running is Sharon Graham, the union’s national organiser.
Graham has won notable backing from rank-and-file members, thanks to her support for workplace organisation, strikes, and militant action – including important victories won recently by bus drivers in Manchester and library workers in Bromley.
As a result, Graham came second in the race for nominations, behind Turner.
While emphasising the need for greater organisation and action on the industrial front, however, Graham has downplayed the importance of using the union’s weight to battle on the political front.
Such syndicalist attitudes are understandable, given the atrocious role currently being played by Starmer and the Labour right wing, who have refused to support workers in struggle.
But such contemptuous behaviour on behalf of the right wing only underlines the need for the unions – especially large left-wing unions, such as Unite – to wage a political fight to remove Keir Starmer and his right-wing leadership
And by continuing to run in this race, Graham’s campaign, despite the best of intentions, threatens to split the left vote and hand Coyne a victory. This would serve to strengthen the position of Starmer and the Labour right wing, denying workers the political support and leadership they need.
In contrast, Beckett’s campaign generated enormous enthusiasm amongst grassroots activists due to his bold tone and militant approach in relation to fighting the bosses, the Tories, and the Labour right wing.
Howard has spoken passionately about the need to end ‘fire and rehire’; to support striking workers; and to end the anti-trade union laws.
And most notably, he has pulled no punches in his opposition to Keir Starmer and the Labour right wing, correctly calling – in no uncertain terms – for Starmer to go.
For all these reasons and more, Socialist Appeal supported Beckett’s bid to become general secretary of Unite the Union.
In announcing his intentions to stand aside, Beckett has released a joint statement along with Turner. This promises a “blended manifesto, taking the best ideas from both candidates”.
The task now for Beckett and his supporters is to continue organising and fighting for the radical demands his campaign has raised; to ensure that Beckett’s bold left-wing programme is taken up and carried through in Unite, in the Labour Party, and across the whole labour movement.
During his campaign, we have to say in all honesty, Turner has come out with a number of worrying statements, which suggest that he is willing to take a more moderate and compromising approach on both industrial and political questions.
Left activists must not allow this to be the case. Capitalism is in a deep crisis. A tsunami of attacks is heading towards workers. And the Labour right wing are determined to purge the party, and make it a ‘safe pair of hands’ for big business once again.
Instead of compromises and concessions, we need militant socialist leadership at the head of the labour movement, fighting for genuine socialist policies. Only on this basis can we defeat the bosses and kick out the Tories. And this means building the forces of Marxism, in Britain and internationally.