The National:

UNITE'S general secretary election was described by the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh as a vote to “decide if Parliament can field a real Leader of the Opposition – a viable alternative to the Tories – or a puppet tied to the purse-strings of hard-left extremists”. But when the results were announced yesterday, the winner was not either Gerard Coyne, the candidate close to Starmer backed by Kavanagh, or Steve Turner, who supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It was Sharon Graham, who was largely ignored by media reports until a few weeks ago, and who ran on a “back to the workplace” platform. Her victory demonstrates that it is wrong to view trade unions as proxies for factional battles in political parties – and that what appeals most to union members is a vision for workplace power.

Such a vision was apparent from Graham’s pitch to members. She described herself as “the Workers’ Candidate”, and pledged to make “real, positive change” and “protect your job, your pay and your conditions”. As the head of Unite’s organising and leverage department, her platform championed the “organising model” of trade unionism – that is, building power in workplaces and using it for leverage in negotiations. There remains an ongoing conflict in the trade union movement about strategy. While many now favour organising – as championed by the US trade unionist Jane McAlevey, who has trained organisers in Scotland – others still cling to the “servicing model” which pitches trade unions as a form of insurance.

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Just weeks ago, Coyne told the Independent he was “quietly confident” of victory. No doubt both Starmer and Anas Sarwar would have welcomed this – under Len McCluskey Unite has remained anchored to the Labour left. But Graham’s argument that Unite is “better than a war within the Labour party” reflects a longstanding mood in Scottish trade unionism. With the decline in support for Scottish Labour, several trade unions have – in the knowledge that their members are now more likely to vote SNP – asserted their own political identities.

Gary Smith, for instance, argued when he was GMB Scotland secretary that his union should not be obsessing about a party in third place when workers were losing their jobs. In 2019 Labour’s losses in the so-called “Red Wall” reflected what happened in Scotland four years before. So it’s no surprise that Smith has become GMB’s UK-wide general secretary, criticising his union’s focus on “faction fights within the Labour Party”, and that Graham has won Unite with a similar message.

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Graham says she is open to supporting a second referendum on Scottish independence – but the reality is that such stances are not directed by the union leadership in London, but will be heavily influenced by lay structures and Unite’s officials in Scotland. Likewise, whether she succeeds in bringing power back to the workplace will depend on ordinary members getting organised. She will be encouraged by the successes of young organisers in Scotland, particularly in the hospitality sector – many of whom supported her campaign. Graham’s election reflects an appetite for militancy among a generation which has learned the hard way that power concedes nothing without a demand – and without the strength to back up that demand. If Sharon Graham’s bold platform is realised in the workplace, she will make history not only in becoming Unite’s first woman leader, but in shifting the balance of our economy.

Conrad Landin is Scottish Labour's former communications chief and a co-editor at the New Internationalist.