The year ahead will be a very important one for the future of the trade union movement. General secretary elections are on the cards for three major unions. Unite, Britain’s second largest union, is one of them.
The right wing of Unite have been determined to take back control for some years now. And as their last effort showed, they're not above using smears to do it.
Their game is clear. They want to return to the times of conciliation with the bosses and with the Labour right. The direction of the Starmer leadership is therefore right up their street.
Whoever the right stands as a candidate for Unite general secretary will be looking to accommodate the union with Starmer, as the current bureaucratic leadership of Unison has done.
Building the fightback
Currently, the most likely standard-bearer for the left is Steve Turner, one of the union’s current assistant general secretaries. Turner has worked closely with the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. He is the organisation’s national chair, and he has been on record as a vocal supporter of the Corbyn movement.
Turner is, in many ways, the continuity candidate. And he will likely be seen as such by union members and activists.
But workers need more than ‘more of the same’ going forward. We need concerted industrial and political action against the tsunami of job losses, industrial closures, and austerity that is looming.
Only by offering this kind of militant perspective can we encourage new members to join and build our forces to fight back against the bosses and Tories.
Up until recently, Howard Beckett, another of Unite’s assistant general secretaries, had also been in the running for the position. Beckett has taken a sharp tone on developments within Labour, openly criticising the new right-wing leadership of the party on several occasions.
As part of his campaign, Beckett also suggested a number of policies that Unite should adopt. These include the expansion of the union’s strike fund; a union-controlled media channel; expanding organising in the gig economy and care sector; and to continue the policy of refusing to repudiate any strike action taken by Unite members.
These positive proposals and firm stand against the Labour right wing should form part of a bold socialist programme for the new union leadership to mobilise members around.
The United Left (UL) group is the faction that represents the organised left within the union. Turner won the UL nomination by a very slim margin. The process has been dogged by rumours of a stitch-up in favour of Turner, with some eligible voters allegedly not receiving ballots.
Perhaps more seriously, the turnout for UL's election was very low, with only 737 votes cast in the hustings. This suggests that rank-and-file activists have a task ahead to expand the organised left inside Unite, which has an overall membership of over one million.
This requires a recruitment campaign amongst Unite’s grassroots, explaining the political importance of having a left-wing rallying point within the union. And this, in turn, means inspiring members with calls for a militant industrial strategy and a socialist political programme.
Strength in the union
Only through the pressure of a strong, organised, socialist tendency within the union can we ensure that the leadership follows through with their promises.
Howard Beckett has correctly stated that a strong and militant Unite should stand as a first line of defence for the working class in these times of crisis.
We need union leaders who will put words into deeds; who will utilise the full strength of the union movement – on both the industrial and the political plane – to fight back against the bosses, the Labour right wing, and the Tories.