Unite general secretary campaign: Left candidates speak to the Socialist

The nomination stage of the Unite the Union general secretary election campaign ends on 7 June. The Socialist Party invited the two left candidates, Sharon Graham and Howard Beckett, to outline why they are standing. Below is Sharon’s statement, see Howard Beckett’s here.

For the Socialist Party’s statement on the election see ‘Make sure there is a fighting left challenge on the ballot paper

We need power to drive the politics – and that must start in the workplace

Sharon Graham, photo Unite

Sharon Graham, photo Unite   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Sharon Graham, Unite executive officer

For those of us that believe unions must be progressive and transformative, this is a dangerous time. If we fail to focus on winning at work and people’s material issues, we will lose our members’ ears and defeat will follow.

Already, only a small minority of members are engaged in this debate. Make no mistake, we are moving in ever decreasing circles and we need fundamental change.

For many years, conversations within the left have often been reduced to considering the merits – or otherwise – of the existing leadership of the Labour Party. But decades on from Thatcher, this discussion is increasingly detached from the concerns of working people. Instead of putting forward concrete plans to build working-class power, general secretary elections are being fought as proxy wars, far removed from workers.

When you are a trade unionist you have to face some hard truths. And the first is this: if you have limited industrial power you can take whatever political position you like, but outside of the cheque book and the committee room, your ability to make change is compromised. You end up forced to rely on the fortunes of others and the ebb and flow of the electoral tide.

There is simply no time left for short-termism. The primary instruments of class struggle – the trade unions – are on life support. Collective bargaining coverage continues to decline, the shop steward base is declining, non-union employers like Amazon continue to erode and undercut our pay and terms and conditions.

We must rebuild our industrial base and bring workers from outside our traditional industries into our union. We can’t afford years of drift facing a Tory government and sustained only by short-term tactical manoeuvres. We can’t fiddle while Rome burns. We have to start doing it ourselves: this is not ‘workerism’ – this is the reality of our moment.

We need an industrial programme that moves decisively beyond the empty rhetoric of ‘partnership’ and which is also supported by our industrial activists; the vast majority of whom agree on the need for power in the workplace and strong organisation, with the ability to take strike action if and when required.

That principle shows the path to our renewal and it presents the opportunity to build a genuinely progressive and powerful culture that is so much deeper and stronger than anything we have currently.

To drive progressive politics within the union we must move beyond fighting internal battles within Labour. I fail to get misty-eyed about the link when often our members’ jobs and services are cut at their hand. I would unashamedly reduce the emotional context of our relationship and instead focus on ‘payment by results’. And yes, that means that I would call out councils or mayors if they attack or fail to support Unite members. I make absolutely no apology for that.

Of course, we still need to seek influence in parliament – laws matter. They can dictate our lives. But we must now reform the way we influence legislation. If anything, I will push hard for policy, but I will base this on a workers’ manifesto that is decided by our reps and activists.

I will pursue its priorities by actively campaigning, as well taking our priorities into the structures of Labour. I will also refuse to support future candidates for parliament that have not represented working people. We need more working-class voices in Westminster and I will turn this soundbite into reality.

Progressive platform

But critical to our political work will be a long-term strategy to build a sustainable progressive platform across our workplaces and communities. I will not just hand over our political fund to Labour, I will use it to build political power.

I believe that we need to do politics from the base up, not the top down. Our political class has failed and it has to be workers that now drive the issues, not politicians. To build power we need to do the hard work of organising in our communities as well as the workplace. Big policy platforms have their place, but so do the hard miles of organising.

To win people over to our cause, to become credible in the eyes of working people, the left has to deal with where we are, not where we would rather be.

So many agreed with the Corbyn platform yet failed to support it. We can all rattle off our version of history, but I am more interested in how we change it – how we build a broad base of support that can be sustained outside of the fortunes of individual leaders or single parties. And the only way to do this – the only method we have failed to adopt – is to organise on a grand scale. We need to start with the issues that people can feel and touch – the material issues that impact on people’s daily lives. We need to build a bridge to the left.

When I look at the work being done by groups like Helping Hands in Edinburgh and their mantra ‘Solidarity not Charity’, I ask why is the trade union movement not at the forefront of this work? Why are we not engaged in mutual aid? Why are we sponsoring food banks and not running them? Because that is where the journey outside of the workplace will start. That is the bridge for the left – the beginnings of a movement won through action.

We now have to earn the right to speak on behalf of ordinary working people, and as general secretary I will organise in our communities, as I organise in the workplace. Identifying, training and resourcing a cadre of leaders to move issues and build confidence.

Ultimately, as a trade union we have to return to the workplace. Not because we are avoiding politics, but because we need to win the battles workers face and build the power to move the politics. There are no shortcuts. As a trade union, our members only stay with us if we defend jobs and improve pay and conditions.

Lose sight of this inalienable fact and the road to reaction and ruin lies in wait. Inside trade unions, left politics dies without the industrial. We can’t avoid it, or pretend otherwise. It’s time for a serious industrial programme. It’s time to build Unite.