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The UK’s second biggest union Unite has overwhelmingly rejected proposals that would have resulted in the union breaking its historic link from Labour. But it has also fired a warning shot to the party’s leadership.
The union represents over a million workers in sectors from South Wales steel plants to London buses and Scottish bars. And despite the vote, it has put Labour “on notice” in a sign of discontent over a perceived right-ward drift by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Sharon Graham was elected in a surprise win in 2021, replacing the retiring Len McCluskey with a mandate to move away from a perceived focus on internal Labour politics to ramping up wins in workplaces through industrial action.
She has certainly moved the party’s focus away from the Labour party. But it was Sharon Graham who spoke up for the link with Labour at the union’s constitutional conference in Brighton on Monday – while making clear she wanted to hold Keir Starmer’s feet to the fire.
It was obvious which way the vote would go in the circumstances. But it was also telling that the union press released the fact that the vote was coming up – something that a union wouldn’t typically do if it was set to be an embarrassment for the National Executive’s confirmed position.
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Speaking to Byline Times after the vote to remain affiliated, Graham called it a “real signpost for Labour”. “Working people are not happy with the direction and to be honest with you, neither am I,” she said.
“People want Labour to come out fighting for them. There is already a party for business, that’s the Conservative Party. What we want Labour to do is to be the party of workers and communities. If they want to get into power, they’re going to need to show tangibly how they are going to do that,” the union leader added.
Unite has been disappointed by a series of positions and u-turns from the Labour front bench – as well as rows over left-wingers being deselected for Parliamentary seats, including union-linked individuals like Corbyn-ally Sam Tarry MP in London, and Beth Winter MP in Wales.
Graham described the debate as “very heated”: “People feel very let down. The reason that we are still affiliated is a very pragmatic one. We have paid into Labour for 14 years, and now is the time to hold their feet to the fire…I think it’s a warning shot for them.”
The General Secretary said it was “sometimes hard to tell” that Labour was a party for workers. Unite is calling for the renationalisation of key sectors – a policy that Sir Keir is unlikely to adopt. “The renationalisation of energy should be on the table. Not because of ideology, but because we should own our own energy. That would put inflation down by 4%. It would mean that we could control bills in a much better way,” Graham said.
Pointing to the foreign state ownership of firms like French-controlled EDF, she said it seems that the UK is “in favour of nationalisation as long as another country owns it.”
Aiming her ire at Labour, she added: “Unless they grab hold of this, then how are people going to come out of the doors to vote for them? They need to show ambition and inspire people that they are the party of work.”
Graham said she speaks to Keir Starmer regularly, including ten days ago. Sir Keir is also addressing Unite’s conference this Thursday – and is likely to face some tough questions from delegates.
“What’s really clear here, and I will be speaking to Keir about this, is that people feel that Labour needs to get this by the scruff of the neck. They want Labour to go to war, as far as workers and communities are concerned. They don’t want to feel that they are using a powder puff here,” she told me. In other words, Starmer needs to grasp progressive policies with both hands, rather than put on a face for union audiences.
“They’re going to have to come out of the blocks with something more inspiring than they have so far.”
Unite has recently marked the milestone of launching 800 industrial disputes over the past year in the UK and Ireland – winning £400 million pounds a year extra for “the pockets of our members”. But Graham feels Labour is not fulfilling its side of the political bargain.
“My job is to make sure that I push up pay for our members so that they can have a decent standard of living. The party is supposed to be our voice in Parliament…And I don’t think that has been executed in the way that it should be,” she told Byline Times.
Asked if she felt the disaffiliation debate was necessary, she was clear: “Yes. We have paid into this party for 14 years outside of government. We need to hold their feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing the things that Labour needs to do. They need to be Labour.”
That argument won the day in the room. But it doesn’t mean the unions are happy with the direction of the party. “But we understand that now would probably be the worst possible time for us to make that decision,” Graham said.
Unite is – or at least, was – one of Labour’s biggest donors. The union gave three million pounds to Labour before the 2019 general election. But in one of Sharon Graham’s first acts as General Secretary, she cut its “affiliation fees” to the party by 10 per cent.
Those fees give the union a voice in the party, including so-called block votes at party conference. But Unite has a certain amount of leeway in how much it gives. And anything outside of the affiliation fees – donations via the union’s campaigning political fund – is up to the executive. “What we have not said, and this will depend on the policies that come forward, is what money we’re giving,” Graham said.
She has now pledged not to give a penny extra to the party until Keir Starmer changes tack: “Since I’ve become the general secretary, there hasn’t been one single penny given to Labour outside of our affiliation [fees]. And that will remain the same until I can see some tangible results and workers can see some tangible results.”
And despite Labour’s thumping 20-25 point poll lead over the Conservatives, Graham believes the party will lose if they don’t come up with a plan for securing and expanding British industry and well-paid jobs.
There has been a huge deal of controversy in Labour circles in recent months about left-wing candidates being deselected or, in some cases, candidates overwhelmingly backed by unions like Unite not making parliamentary selection shortlists. Is Graham worried?
“I’ve had conversations with Keir about this…If every workers’ voice is being taken out of Labour, then they are not going to have a proper plan for workers.”
The recent snub for Jamie Driscoll, with the left-wing North of Tyne leader being denied a place on the new North East mayor selection shortlist over appearing on a panel with ousted film director Ken Loach, ruffled lots of feathers among union affiliates.
Graham believes that those who back policies like renationalising energy are “being targeted” by the Labour machine. “That’s what it looks like to me. What that will mean is we’ll have a weaker Labour Party. Workers’ voices need to be heard.”
Disclosure: Josiah Mortimer writes a newsletter for the Unite union as part of the non-profit Campaign Collective.
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