Why Union Boss Elections Are As Crucial As 'Red Wall' Votes For Keir Starmer

·Political correspondent, HuffPost UK
·3 min read
Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of Unite, is among those vying to replace Len McCluskey (Photo: Aaron Chown - PA Images via Getty Images)
Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of Unite, is among those vying to replace Len McCluskey (Photo: Aaron Chown - PA Images via Getty Images)

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Bob Crow, the late boss of the RMT transport union, was undoubtedly a controversial figure.

London commuters late for work due to seemingly endless Tube strikes would curse his name. Politicians and journalists who clashed with the left-wing firebrand would call him a “dinosaur” or, owing to his whopping £142,000 salary, a “champagne socialist”.

But when Crow died suddenly in 2014, it was notable how tributes came from not just those sympathetic to left-wing politics but from across the political spectrum.

Even Boris Johnson, then the Tory mayor of London, recognised Crow “fought tirelessly” for better pay and conditions and that he thought his former foe “a man of character”.

Obviously, no self-respecting union leader would want to be seen getting too cosy with Conservative politicians.

But how Crow was regarded in the political sphere stands in sharp contrast to Howard Beckett, one of the candidates to replace Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite.

Keir Starmer moved to suspend him from the Labour Party for saying home secretary Priti Patel, a British-born minister of Indian heritage, “should be deported”.

Beckett apologised to Patel but remained defiant during an interview with Sky News on Friday, refusing to withdraw from the Unite race and saying his suspension was “completely inappropriate”.

He added he did not “literally” mean the minister should be deported and was “sorry if” that was not clear to those that read his hastily-deleted tweet.

While the assistant general secretary claimed he had not been informed of a suspension, Labour sources insist an email was sent and his union informed.

Unite, meanwhile, does not appear to have taken any action, telling HuffPost UK he “has correctly and unreservedly apologised”, while offering no further comment.

Beckett’s is the just the latest in a long line of bad headlines and divisive interventions from union chiefs in the seven years since Crow’s death.

And many of them have targeted not the Conservatives, but Labour.

McCluskey accused former deputy leader Tom Watson “sharpening his knife looking for a back to stab” and said Starmer faces the “dustbin of history” if he does not change direction.

The FBU’s Matt Wrack has hit out at Starmer for “watering down” policies and Labour MPs for undermining former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

TSSA boss Manuel Cortes repeatedly went public to hit out at Corbyn for Labour’s “Brexit fudge” when the party was in turmoil over its policy on a second referendum in 2018.

Former GMB general secretary Tim Roache stood down last year citing ill health and has faced claims of impropriety, which he denies. Separately, an independent report found the union to be institutionally sexist.

In the minds of voters, all this friendly fire points to more left-wing division and Labour leaders not in control of their party’s agenda.

Fresh elections this year for the leadership of Unite and GMB follow Christina McAnea’s election as the first female general secretary of Unison in January.

With Peter Mandelson calling for union reform, these races are just as important for Starmer’s Labour Party, if not more, than any parliamentary by-election.

A new era of Labour blood-letting and a “war of the roses” between MPs and the union movement splashed across every newspaper is not likely to boost the electoral hopes of Corbyn’s successor.

Though said to be “McCluskey’s right hand man”, Beckett is unlikely to emerge victorious in the Unite race, however. Some believe he may struggle to even make the ballot.

The contest is between Steve Turner, a figure who prefers to keep his powder dry until behind closed doors, and moderate Gerard Coyne, who pointedly told HuffPost UK that Unite can no longer be Starmer’s “backseat driver”.

National organiser Sharon Graham, who has led the union’s push to expose working conditions at employers like Amazon, is also in the race.

Whoever leads a union affiliated to Labour will have a voice and a platform. But, as Crow proved, how they use that influence will be their legacy.

UPDATE: This copy was amended to reflect the fact that Sharon Graham is also among the candidates in the Unite general secretary election.

Related...

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Unite Should Stop Trying To Be Keir Starmer’s ‘Backseat Driver’, Gerard Coyne Warns

Labour Suspends Union Boss After His 'Deport' Priti Patel Tweet

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.