A ‘return to the workplace’ will give many in Labour sleepless nights

Unite the Union contingent in the 2016 Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Rally

The election of Sharon Graham as general secretary of the UK’s biggest private sector union, Unite, is a huge upset that many, including myself, did not predict. Having another woman around the top tables is significant in and of itself, but there are even bigger implications for the future of trade union organising and the Labour Party link.

Her left rival, Steve Turner, was in many ways the continuity candidate to Len McCluskey. Whilst critical of the current Labour leadership, he nevertheless implicitly supported a similar strategy, to use Unite’s collective voice to shape Labour and play an active political role. Graham’s right-wing rival, Gerard Coyne, promised a more consensual approach to employers and more hands off but consistent support for the current Labour leadership. Both were defeated by a candidate who promises to spend less time thinking about the Labour Party.

Graham’s slogan was indeed, ‘Let’s get back to the workplace’, and her emphasis is on building power and protecting jobs, pay and conditions. It is a combative and organising vision. This approach, combined with having gained the backing of non-Labour far left groups and parties has led some of her critics to accuse her of syndicalism. That’s far from what her manifesto offered though; she hasn’t threatened to break the trade union link, but she has argued that an ‘almost exclusive focus on the Labour Party has been at the expense of building organisation’.

Self-described workers’ candidate, she has promised a democratically-constructed manifesto as the basis for engaging with Labour. She is committed to a community and workplace organising approach to politics, finding lay leaders through local campaigns and building collective capacity. Importantly, Unite have a significant enough political fund to explore extra-parliamentary and wider-movement-building strategies as well as a Labour-Party-influencing one.

This news comes not too long after the election of Gary Smith as General Secretary of GMB. Whilst Smith’s win was much more widely predicted and less closely analysed, both results suggest there is a growing demand from lay members to ‘return to the workplace’, with more emphasis on building from the grassroots up, rather than partnership-working with employers, the Labour Party and the state.

In Smith’s first few months, he has questioned whether GMB are getting their money’s worth from their party affiliation, and stopped funding London Labour campaigns after a Labour led council sacked a GMB member.

In spite of having different personal politics, both new general secretaries seem to have acknowledged that lay members are becoming more sceptical of a political strategy that relies on getting your policies into a Labour manifesto and banking on them being implemented at Westminster. Last month Graham said ‘Labour will likely be in opposition for most of the next decade and workers can’t afford to wait’.

But what happens when two large general unions prioritise industrial organising and expansion at the same time? There could be inter-union tensions over recruitment and representation – in manufacturing which is Graham’s base, and possibly in local government, health and social care where both unions have a foothold. Recent disagreements between these unions around the British Gas dispute and ‘fire and re-hire’ broke out into the open several times.

Amazon is in many ways the big industrial scalp because if you can tame Amazon, you can tame any employer. GMB have been organising there since 2013 but Unite have been increasingly bullish in their organising efforts of late. Industrial disputes then often lead to political tensions as we saw between the long running feud between GMB and Community over ASOS recognition.

When it comes to the union link with the Labour Party there are at least three big issues coming down the track. Firstly, Labour Party staff are represented by GMB and Unite. Strained party finances, reorganisation and redundancies mean industrial action is a real possibility. Expect both of these general secretaries to back Labour Party staff to the hilt, even if it causes headaches for the party leadership.

Secondly, both of these new general secretaries are sceptical of future promises of green jobs and will demand member-led just-transition agreements. Gary Smith is a former gas engineer and has already been openly oppositional to some of Labour’s environmental policy pronouncements, communicating his displeasure publicly and directly with members.

A bold offer around a Green New Deal is something that ties centrist Labour members and younger left-wing members together. Unite under Len McCluskey, with Steve Turner playing an active role, understood the vital urgency and opportunities that a Green New Deal could bring. Whether much will change in terms of Unite’s approach remains to be seen but GMB’s approach has hardened, which suggests a real tussle between Labour members and trade unions could open up around green policies.

The third issue is electoral reform. A motion on whether Labour should back proportional representation for Westminster elections will likely make its way to the floor at this year’s Annual Conference. Graham is reported to have said she supports PR and will campaign internally for it. Unite policy doesn’t yet back PR, but this domino could also soon fall. With Labour members overwhelmingly supportive of PR, it’s looking more likely by the day that Labour will adopt a pro-PR stance in the coming years.  

The trade union – Labour Party link is built around consistency, communication, and commitment to the party. The link has always been a ‘contentious alliance’, but these values are what often keeps disagreements confined to private rooms and keeps the show on the road. All three of these will now be tested, and the Leader of the Opposition’s Office will have to use deft skill and diplomacy if it is to successfully ride these waves.

The recent changes at the top of affiliated unions suggest an evolving organising and political strategy. This could unwittingly end up morphing into a new period of ‘labourism’, whereby politics is designated to the party, and trade unions focus on industrial organising. Alternatively, we could be heading for a much more radical and messy shift. After all, a political strategy that supports PR and doesn’t believe Labour is likely to win for a decade doesn’t sound much like labourism at all.

Joe Cox was a Political Officer for Labour Unions between 2017-2021. He writes in a personal capacity.