Why Sharon Graham’s victory in Unite is a signal for the class struggle to intensify; Gerry Downing debates Bob Pitt  

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17/10/2021 by socialistfight

Sharon Graham’s victory in the Unite general secretary election was very unexpected and a real blow to the bureaucracy organised in the United Left in the opinion of Socialist Labour. They thought they had the left vote in the bag and the scare tactics of splitting the vote and letting right-winger Gerard Coyne in would be enough to assure them victory; in fact, Steve Turner actually argued that it was his turn now!

Here Bob Pitt, a Labour party veteran activist and an old comrade, debates Gerry Downing, a Sharon Graham supporter, on the significance of  Sharon Graham’s victory.

The Sharon Graham Debate

Bob Pitt: The ultra-left supported this policy, because having a Unite leader like Len McCluskey who placed importance on intervention in the Labour Party cut across their argument that the real task of the left is to build a new socialist party in opposition to Labour. Having Sharon as general secretary will facilitate recruitment to their own small sects.

Then you have syndicalist militants who believe the Labour Party doesn’t offer any kind of vehicle for pursuing the class struggle, which they think is best carried out exclusively through industrial action. They would have backed Sharon too.

Plus, you have mainstream apolitical trade unionists who think that the role of Unite should just be to defend wages and conditions, and that committing time and resources to intervening in Labour’s internal politics is a diversion from basic bread-and-butter issues. Sharon’s pitch obviously appealed to them.

On top of which she probably won support from right-wingers who voted Tory or for the Brexit Party and are hostile to Unite giving any backing to Labour. Some of them would have seen Sharon as preferable to Coyne, who did advocate active involvement in Labour, though in support of Starmer and the Labour right against the Corbynite left. Coyne’s poor showing – he got only 28.5% of the vote compared with 41.3% when he stood in 2017 – does suggest that a layer of his support peeled away and went to Sharon.

Extracts from the subsequent Facebook debate:

Gerry Downing: This was a defeat for the trade union bureaucracy and the electoralist approach, which at least suffered a serious blow by Graham’s victory. Those who see politics as a gift to the working class from the elite of the trade unions and Labour party have gotten a kick in the goolies. It promises a new era of militancy in the working class against the opportunist maneuverers.

She got almost the same vote as Jerry Hicks got in 2013 and for approximately the same reasons. It is true she is no rank and file candidate like he was. I do not agree with all this hailing as great victories the withdrawal of fire and rehire offensives by giving the employers almost all the cuts they demand. But now is surely the time to relaunch the campaign for a genuine trade union rank and file movement.

The SWP and a few other left groups got it right. Sharon Graham will be forced to confront Starmer too. But now with a reinvigorated base. She has promised to get the inquiry into union collaborating with the blacklist completed within 100 days. Unite still has former UCATT leader Jerry Swain as leader of the construction sector. The old fighter Brian Higgins may yet get his revenge from beyond the grave. But charging Sharon Graham with getting Tory votes and pleasing Kier Starmer is beyond the beyonds.”

Bob Pitt: The fact remains that Coyne’s vote declined sharply compared with 2017. In that election he got 41.3%, and Len McCluskey and Ian Allinson got 58.7% between them. This time Sharon Graham and Steve Turner got a combined 71.5% while Coyne got only 28.5%. Where did Coyne’s lost support go? It’s unlikely that it went to Steve Turner, who was the McCluskey continuity candidate. So presumably it went to Sharon Graham. If anyone has an alternative argument, I’d be happy to hear it. When people resort to insults it’s usually a sign that they don’t.

Gerry Downing: Bob Pitt, Of course the consciousness of the working class is a fixed, unchanging thing and could not possibly move to the left or the right in response to changing circumstances. Where did Jerry Hicks 38% votes go between 2013 and 2017 and why did they not go to Ian Allison?

And why did Len McCluskey get all those Tory votes Bob is on about then? Or maybe Jerry Hicks got them to stop the real Labour candidate who became such a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn???

The myopic vision that sees political change through establishment political parties is ridiculed by this result. In 2017 the working class saw their political advancement coming from Jeremy Corbyn and did not want to rock the boat by voting for a militant trade unionist in the Unite election. And Ian was not as well-known as Jerry. His supporters in Unite had by then been bureaucratically shunted out of positions of influence by the bureaucratic machine.

Now class struggle is the only way forward in their view, albeit a syndicalist response, but a reflection of the traditional separation in working class consciousness between the political and industrial. What was lacking under Corbyn is coming back and now the task is to politicise this movement to attack Starmer and his Tory mentors as the class struggle builds.

But Tory votes for Sharon Graham? Absolutely not in any significant measure. Certainly, Tory votes for Steve Turner who is so soft on Kier Starmer that The Sun and many others preferred him as the realist who would keep those people in their boxes. It’s great to see the realists shafted again for the second time in six years, although this time by syndicalism and not by illustration in socialism via parliament, which Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell managed to dispel between 2017 and 2019 by their support for cuts in local authorities and the City of London.

Bob Pitt: Interesting take on Sharon’s victory by a member of her campaign team. He has this to say about Gerard Coyne’s poor result: “The big takeaway from comparing the 2017 election with this one was that his vote share fell, in part because those seeking change found a better vehicle for their aspirations in Sharon Graham.”

Gerry Downing’s comment on this

Of course, no fundamental reforms of capitalism, let alone the victory of socialism, however we see its triumph, can come about if those who saw things from a right wing pro-establishment outlook do not change their outlook and begin to see it from a left wing, class struggle perspective.

Bob Pitt poses the awful scenario in his last comment; some who were so demoralised in 2017 to vote for Coyne have now straightened their backs, lifted their heads and begun to seek a route to the class struggle.

Certainly, the vast majority of the most militant shop stewards, and the fighting formations, the Rank and File Construction, Blacklist Support Group and others, as well as the SWP, RS21, Socialist Party/NSSN and Socialist Appeal, etc. strongly supported Sharon Graham. No Coyne rightists there.

Corbyn failed because he feared to mobilise his own supporters, at the very least Graham is committed to that. And therein lies the hope for the future. She will have to engage Kier Starmer anyway, but not in the bureaucratic way Unite has done it up to now. ▲

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