The only woman running to be the next leader of the powerful Unite union has revealed that she received “disgraceful” online abuse for refusing to stand aside for two more prominent male rivals.
Sharon Graham, who has attracted an unexpected level of grassroots support, said she experienced a “rough ride” after refusing to end her campaign. She said troll accounts had mocked up pictures of her as Margaret Thatcher, and she had warned her family that she might lose her job because of the row.
Graham has been criticised for refusing to engage in talks to agree on a single leftwing unity candidate to replace Len McCluskey, a key supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership. Howard Beckett, a vehement critic of Keir Starmer, has pulled out to support the frontrunner, Steve Turner. The left is determined to defeat Gerard Coyne, seen as more supportive of Starmer. Graham, however, remains in the race.
“Being a woman in the trade union movement, and obviously a woman who has gone up against some of the most hostile of employers, I’m really used to being in difficult situations – so it takes a lot to rock me,” she said. “But I can understand why people don’t run against the establishment. We’re not in a playground picking football teams. This is the leader of one of the most significant unions in Britain and Ireland.
“I was never going to be involved in doing deals. This is the problem we have in the movement. There’s a moment in time, right now, where the union needs to be doing what I’m suggesting – it needs to go back to the workplace. And I believe that the membership wants this choice.”
Graham, who received a surprising 328 nominations from some of the union’s most powerful branches, said that none of her supporters had asked her to pull out. She said troll accounts had been sending her abuse, including disparaging mocked-up pictures, after her refusal to stand down. “I thought it was disgraceful,” she said. “If you’re a woman in a leadership role, it’s all the usual sexist stuff that you hear. It will never deter me. Maybe they’re a bit worried I might win.”
Graham said that the union movement had reached a “crisis point” and a non-established figure was needed to return Unite to its main cause of representing workers and end “an obsession” with the Labour party.
“I absolutely feel that we are at a crisis point in the trade union movement,” she said. “I don’t think I’m over-egging that. The union movement is on life support. For way too long, and it has happened over years and years, we have moved away from our core business. We have got to get back to the workplace. It is absolutely critical that we get back to doing what is on the trade union tin. If we cannot do that, then I think the union movement will be irreparable in years to come.”
She added: “I don’t have any regional secretary backing me. That’s the machine,” she said. “Every person supporting me has gone against their region. They’re doing it against the regime. We’re in this to really make change.”
Unite remains Labour’s biggest donor. Graham said that there would be no “blank cheques” for Labour under her leadership, but that the party would have “no problem with me” if it pursued policies that improved the condition of workers.
“This obsession at the moment with the Labour party, almost like we’re a branch of it, has made us weaker, unfortunately. Yes, politics matters. But the Labour party has effectively almost become the centre of discussions, when in fact jobs, pay and conditions should be the centre.”
She said women had been “let down” by unions, who had failed to adapt to the new industries in which women are over-represented. “This is not pin money that women are turning out for,” she said. “They’re often doing more than one job. Without a shadow of a doubt, in the post-Covid world, they will essentially lose their jobs more [without union help]. I genuinely feel that we have let women down.”