Back to the Workplace

The left’s position within a Labour Party increasingly led by neo-Blairites has taken another knock. On Wednesday, Sharon Graham won the election to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite, one of the UK’s Big Three trade unions and traditionally Labour’s largest donor. She finished 5,000 votes ahead of Steve Turner, the preferred candidate of McCluskey and the broad United Left caucus, on a turnout of 125,000. The union claims 1.2 million members, so that was a turnout of just under 10%, with Graham coasting to victory on the votes of 4.5% of Unite members.

Trade-union donations – Unite pays around £1.3m a year, and contributed £3m for the 2019 election – buy not only a substantial block of seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee but significant influence in electing local parliamentary candidates. Within each union, the general secretary tends to play a quasi-presidential role in deciding policies and appointments. The outgoing McCluskey had spent years taking up the cudgels against the right-wing majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn and his large extra-parliamentary support base. He fought in Corbyn’s corner during the 2016 leadership contest when some Labour MPs wanted him off the ballot paper, and has been a voluble critic of Starmer’s purges and ‘vapid New Labour cliches’.

By contrast, Graham campaigned on a slogan of Westminster versus the workplace, criticizing the union’s ‘obsession’ with the Labour Party. ‘We have tried our political project within Labour. It has failed’, she said. Her manifesto – far more considered than Steve Turner’s bland bullet-point offering – called for investment in sectoral combines of shop stewards to coordinate bargaining agendas as part of a wider overhaul of the union’s culture of industrial bargaining.

Graham was previously head of Unite’s organising and leverage department. ‘Organising’ is a centrally driven effort to rebuild shopfloor structures that have been swept away by deindustrialization and privatization. Essentially, it means employing additional officials dedicated to cultivating and training reps. Its antonym is mere recruitment, which leaves unions vulnerable to membership churn.

‘Leverage’ is the targeted application of pressure short of industrial action to sap an employer’s will – basically NGO-style protest campaigns that don’t rely on the labour movement’s traditional weight of numbers but aim for eye-catching events, amplified by media coverage. Graham claims that Unite’s version of leverage has never been defeated, although its half-cocked use in a bruising industrial defeat at Ineos’s Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013 – there were pickets of a director’s family home – earned the union a bad press without delivering a breakthrough.

Strikes are hard to mount, let alone sustain, in Tory Britain. Statutory restrictions (further tightened by Cameron in 2016), a notoriously flexible labour market and widespread demoralization have led unions to consider alternative approaches. A shift in emphasis from strikes to stunts was signalled when Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, defeated by Thatcher in a long and bitter strike, opted against industrial action in response to a subsequent round of pit closures coordinated by John Major’s deputy Michael Heseltine, and made do instead with a protest march in London and an attempt to dig up Heseltine’s lawn.

A decade later, during the wave of corporate asset-stripping that marked the New Labour boom, the GMB under Paul Kenny, a bruiser from the old Labour right, brought a camel and needle to the steps of a south London church attended by the head of private-equity firm Permira to illustrate the proverb about the rich getting into Heaven, after the union was de-recognized by a company that the grasping Permira had recently acquired. Chancellor Gordon Brown resisted pressure to curb the activities of such private-equity groups (he now works for one). Kenny retorted with empty threats that New Labour shouldn’t take union support for granted.

Graham’s emphasis on rank-and-file activity has attracted misplaced support from the Trotskyist left, but the Tory press is cautiously optimistic. Although Turner’s approach was more conciliatory than McClusky’s, he had promised continued backing for the Labour left. With Graham, however, the Times comments that ‘If she is true to her word and returns Britain’s second-largest union to its core business of representing members’ interests, her triumph might prove positive’. A ‘hands-off’ relationship between Labour and its largest donor ‘may end up suiting both sides’.

Graham’s warning that there will be ‘no blank cheques’ for Starmer is a rote union demand for face-saving micro-concessions over policy. Distancing is not the same as disengagement: it’s more a case of the labour movement’s traditional deference towards Labour at Westminster reasserting itself. The Labour Party leadership has by and large been short-changing the unions for a hundred years, and it would take a huge effort of will for one of the major affiliates to walk away now. It’s more likely that a politically quiescent Unite will spend the next few years propping Starmer up.

Elsewhere in the Big Three, recent elections have entrenched the right where it was already strong. Christina McAnea became the new general secretary of public-service union giant Unison (1.3 members) in January and proceeded to accuse McClusky of ‘indulgence’ for criticising Starmer. In June, Gary Smith, another Scot, took the top job at GMB (500,000 members), telling the Daily Record that ‘it is Keir Starmer’s problem to sort out the Labour Party, not ours’. Smith was formerly ‘regional’ secretary of GMB north of the Border, where he withdrew support from the Corbyn-appointed leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard. GMB members did not want to get bogged down in an internal Labour Party dispute, Smith insisted. These days many of them vote for the Scottish Nationalists. 

The surprising thing is how Unite diverged from the conformist GMB and Unison under McCluskey and his predecessor Tony Woodley, both products of militant Merseyside, and instead found allies among some of the smaller unions, like railway workers under the bullish leadership of Bob Crow. It looks like that breach within the Big Three has now closed, and champagne corks will be popping again in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.  

Read on: Arthur Scargill, ‘The New Unionism’, NLR 1/92.