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The election for general secretary at the trade union Unite has the potential to dramatically reshape the labour movement and the left in Britain – and it has just been shaken up with a last-minute candidate withdrawal. Howard Beckett, head of legal and politics in the Labour-affiliated union and a fierce critic of party leader Keir Starmer, has withdrawn from the race and endorsed fellow assistant general secretary Steve Turner.
After repeatedly setting and missing deadlines, Beckett and Turner struck a deal, just before ballot papers needed to be printed. A joint statement reveals that Turner has pledged to implement a “blended manifesto” if elected, taking the best ideas from his and Beckett’s platforms. This means he would support Beckett’s Unite TV initiative, giving each region and nation a studio from which to broadcast on YouTube, and would back a structural change to promote federalism within the union, giving policy independence to Unite in Wales.
A sigh of relief can be heard from those on the Labour left who hope that Unite does not go the same way as the other two big party-affiliated unions, Unison and the GMB, which have both seen leftwing general secretary challengers defeated in recent months. But the left’s victory is not secure, as they have not managed to coalesce behind just one potential successor to the outgoing leader Len McCluskey, with Sharon Graham still standing.
Turner, a former bus worker, is in charge of manufacturing at Unite. During the campaign, he has won the endorsement of United Left, the biggest leftwing organisation within the union, and secured the most branch nominations. On the basis of those nominations, you would think Turner could easily take the crown – but the last Unite leadership election shows nomination figures aren’t everything, as McCluskey had 1,185 branches (versus 187 for Gerard Coyne) but only narrowly won with 45.5% of the final vote (versus 41.3% for Coyne). Turner is hoping that victories such as this year’s “Battle for Barnoldswick” – in which he led negotiations to prevent hundreds of job losses for members at Rolls-Royce – can see him through.
The left’s other candidate, Graham, is the union’s executive officer for organising and leverage, which means she has excellent relationships with union reps on the ground. Her allies say people underestimate her, as it was predicted she would not get on the ballot, yet she received an impressive number of nominations and showed clear breadth of support. Despite extensive talks with Graham, she will not be dropping out to clear the path for Turner. Supporters claim that it’s vital there should be a woman on the ballot. Her key messages can be summed up as “the three Ws”: Westminster, women and workers. Graham does not want Unite to be focused on Westminster, reckons only she can fully understand the concerns of women in the union, and is pitching herself as “the workplace candidate”.
The “mainstream” candidate Coyne lost out to McCluskey in 2017, but only by around 5,550 votes, so is running again to finish the job of defeating the “hard left”. Central to his bid are accusations that the current leadership misspends money and involves itself too much in Labour politics – allegations that were more easily directed towards Beckett than Turner. Coyne has already sought to highlight their new alliance/relationship, responding to their joint statement that “if you vote Turner, you get Beckett”. His camp is confident that the numbers still stack up in his favour, particularly if criticisms of the “backroom deal” encourage more members to vote.
Now that the conversation can move on from which left candidates should drop out, all three contenders will be more closely scrutinised – and will have to stand on their own records.
• Sienna Rodgers is editor of LabourList