The leftwinger Sharon Graham has won a surprise victory in the contest to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of the Unite union.
She received 37.7% of the vote, beating Steve Turner, a fellow leftwinger backed by McCluskey, who got 33.8%. Turner was seen as favourite to win the election to lead Britain’s second largest union, which is the biggest donor to the Labour party.
Gerard Coyne, seen as the “centrist” candidate, received 28.5% of the vote.
Although there are 1.2 million Unite members, only 123,866 votes were cast in the election. Graham received 46,696, Turner 41,833 and Coyne 35,334.
Graham, a senior Unite official, was widely portrayed as the underdog in a contest that initially was presented primarily as between Turner, the candidate of the Unite establishment and the left, and Coyne.
Starmer welcomed the news by tweeting: “Congratulations to UniteSharon on her election as General Secretary of Unite – the first ever woman to hold that role. I’m looking forward to working together to improve the lives of working people across the country.”
In a statement welcoming her election, Graham said she won because Unite members wanted change.
In a reference to McCluskey’s many public complaints about Labour’s shift to the right before and after Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Graham said: “Unite members … have spoken. They want change. They have rallied, in their tens of thousands, to our demand that Unite should get back to the workplace and deliver what it says on the trade union tin – a relentless fight for jobs, pay and conditions.”
She also said that as general secretary she would “fight against the gross injustices that blight the lives of our members” and that she would in particular resist the use of “fire and rehire” tactics of “rogue employers”.
Following the announcement of the result,McCluskey said: “Sharon has been a valued and close friend and an integral part of my senior team throughout my time in office so I know from experience that she is a talented, dedicated and passionate trade unionist. I have every faith that she will run our union in a manner true to its fighting back spirit.”
Graham, who is said to be less keen on developing a profile in the national media than her predecessor, started work as a silver service waitress at 16, and organised her first walkout for better pay and conditions when she was 17.
She has been a union organiser for more than 20 years and at Unite she has headed the organising and leverage department, which specialises in taking on hostile employers – including by putting pressure on multinationals by linking local disputes to a company’s interests worldwide. Unite claims her team has a “100% winning track record”.
Graham’s campaign was backed by Socialist Worker and her victory has been welcomed by Momentum, the Labour group set up to support Corbyn and his agenda. It said “any route to progressive change in Britain requires working-class organisation to be stronger than ever before” and that Graham’s victory was welcome because that was her view too.
Although Graham’s politics are well to the left of Starmer’s, there was concern in his office that if Turner were elected, he might continue with the confrontational approach towards the party leadership followed by McCluskey. Turner was supported by Howard Beckett, another Unite official who has explicitly called for Starmer to be removed as Labour leader.
Beckett was initially a candidate himself, and he, Graham and Turner came under pressure to agree a pact whereby only one of them stood, so as to avoid the left vote being split and Coyne winning by default. Beckett did stand down but Graham refused – a move credited by some with increasing her standing among members.
A Labour party source indicated that Starmer was very comfortable with the result, and that a Turner victory may have been more problematic. Starmer and Graham have not had a close working relationship before, but they are expected to speak soon.
During her campaign, Graham said that Unite would not be offering Labour a “blank cheque”. This was seen as a potential threat to cut the union’s donations to the party, but Starmer’s allies are not viewing that as a hostile statement, with one saying the comment “did not cause any internal waves”.
Unite has never had a female general secretary, although Sogat, the print workers’ union that merged with a union that became part of Amicus, which eventually joined with the TGWU to from Unite, was headed by Brenda Dean in the 1980s.
Graham’s victory means the two biggest unions in Britain are both run by women. Earlier this year, Christina McAnea was elected as Unison’s first female general secretary.