When Keir Starmer held a Zoom call with a clutch of Britain’s biggest trade union general secretaries this summer, the mood was one of warm solidarity. Starmer had impressed the unions with his harrying of the government over the A-levels fiasco, but he made clear his priority was coronavirus and the threat of mass unemployment.
Union bosses fed back stories from the coalface, with real worries on health and safety and employers gearing up to make redundancies. The meeting agreed a joint focus on national campaigning to expose Boris Johnson’s plan to withdraw the furlough jobs support scheme this autumn. Starmer and the union “barons” were all on the same side.
But the quiet efficiency of the meeting was in contrast to a wider unease and instability within the union movement. One of the big players, the GMB, had seen its general secretary Tim Roache forced out amid allegations of sexual harassment. Dave Prentis, the head of Unison, had announced he would step down after a marathon 20 years in post.
And just over a week before the Zoom call, in a reminder of the bitter battles of Labour’s civil war in recent years, Unite’s Len McCluskey had issued a stark warning to Starmer: his union could pull funding and Labour could “go under” if it veered to the “right”. Starmer’s election was a “disappointment” for those like him who wanted Rebecca Long-Bailey to keep the Corbyn flame alive, McCluskey had said.
With the election of the Unite leader’s successor set to start in 2021, and with similar contests taking place for Unison and the GMB, a new generation of general secretaries will be installed over the coming year. It’s a changing of the (old) guard that hasn’t been seen in decades, with all three of the biggest trade unions holding their elections within months of each other.
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As this week’s TUC will underline, the coronavirus pandemic and its focus on health and safety in the workplace has suddenly given unions more profile, influence and membership than in decades. So the looming change at the top three unions - which together have more than three million members - matters more than ever.
A cultural shift could occur too, with three white men being possibly replaced by women, and two by union officials from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Although all the unions are campaigning to protect the jobs of their members right now, the under-the radar campaigns for the jobs of their general secretaries are also underway.
But with their donations providing Labour’s dominant source of income, and with each holding key seats on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), the general secretary elections also matter hugely to Starmer. Each could usher in a new era under a ‘moderate’ or a more radical leadership. As one MP puts it: “He could end up with the strongest union support of any Labour leader since [Hugh] Gaitskell in the 1950s. Or he could end up with a nightmare.”
The union with the biggest current problems is undeniably the GMB. The 622,000 members of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers’ and Allied Trade Union have seen not just their general secretary Tim Roache suddenly quit over allegations of misconduct.
Just weeks ago, a damning independent report by QC Karon Monaghan found the union guilty of “institutional sexism”. Bullying and cronyism were huge problems too, fuelling a toxic, alcohol-fuelled culture that made women feel unsafe and unrecognised. Although women make up a growing number of its members, there is job “segregation” in the union with females in junior or admin roles and the officers almost all men.
The controversies don’t just stop at sexual harassment. The union has also ordered a separate internal financial audit, a move approved by its executive last week. Minutes seen by HuffPost show that accountants PWC have been asked to investigate “GMB procurement, GMB political expenditure, the use of GMB corporate credit cards”.
The executive also agreed to seek legal advice on whether it could ask staff whether they knew about a “lie detector test” that Roache agreed to when confronted with allegations of misconduct. Some in the union believe both exercises are a “fishing expedition” that will yield little, but others believe it could expose further deep-seated problems.
The two main contenders for the general secretary vacancy are seen as Gary Smith, the Scottish regional secretary, and Rehana Azam, a national secretary with responsibility for public services.
Smith has several friends among Labour MPs. It was he, and not Azam, who gave evidence on the impact of Covid before the Business Select Committee this year. Although he performed well, some eyebrows were raised within the union, as Azam is the union’s lead on the virus and is from a community hard hit by the pandemic.
Smith is seen by his supporters as the kind of leader needed to steady the ship and put the workplace, rather than Westminster, at top of its priorities. “Decades ago, the GMB’s role was the traditional anchor for the party leadership, solid and reliable,” one MP says. “It hasn’t always been that dependable on the NEC in recent years and has played some of Unite’s silly games. Most regional secretaries, and their members, wanted Starmer for leader but the union ended up nominating Lisa Nandy.”
One union insider points to the way Smith has fought against recent British Gas moves to sack and reemploy thousands of staff. “Gary is a hard-nosed industrial organiser, very clear about the industrial priorities of the union. The GMB would be much more ‘bottom-line’. Both he and Rehana are relatively young and would keep the union moving.”
Azam’s supporters say she will be exactly the breath of fresh air the union needs in the wake of the sexism scandal. “Having a young, Bame woman would be great optics but more importantly she’s really good. She has a high level of emotional intelligence, something union leaders should have these days. She’s not interested in nepotism or tit-for-tat factionalism.”
There is even recent speculation within the union that Smith could step aside and let fellow ‘moderate’ Kathleen Walker Shaw, a veteran official who was beaten by Roache in the last general secretary election, have another go at the top job.
But Smith is seen as a strong contender precisely because the recent route to winning has been to build up a regional powerbase and then do deals with other regional bosses to get the most backing.
“To understand the GMB you have to understand it really is a set of regional fiefdoms. The regions have the money and the power. You get your name in the regional magazine,” says one member. “Turnout can be abysmally low and a few thousand votes can swing it. And it is dominated by the white male, 40-65s who know the regional politics.”
Amid its current internal chaos, with claim and counter-claim of bullying, the GMB executive has yet to decide a timetable for an election, but one is expected by the spring.
Even if Azam fails to feminise the leadership of the GMB, over at Unison a woman is the favourite for the top job. Christina McAnea, assistant general secretary, has notched up more than 100 nominations so far.
“The momentum is behind her. If she wins, Keir will continue to benefit from very close support from the union that really powered his leadership campaign,” one Starmer ally says.
“But Keir is wisely staying completely out of it, he is a stickler for the rules and for realising that unions choose their general secretaries, not party leaders.”
McAnea is far from a shoo-in, however, for the election due early in the new year. Up against her are Roger McKenzie, another assistant general secretary who has been endorsed publicly by Jeremy Corbyn, and fellow left-winger Paul Holmes, who has been endorsed by John McDonnell.
“It can take just a few thousand people to win this, and none of the candidates really has big name recognition among the members,” one Unison insider said. “Christine is picking up most nominations but Roger getting the backing of Corbyn could prove significant. He breached a fundamental principle that MPs don’t try to interfere in union elections, but it could be effective.”
In recent years, the Left has grown in influence in Unison. At least two regional secretaries in Unison are card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Even if McAnea wins, the executive elections next summer could shift Left from the current small majority for ‘moderates’, tying her hands, some say.
Holmes, a veteran on Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire, is the wild card. He has talked of moving the union’s London HQ to the midlands. “No one should write off Paul Holmes. He’s Mr Unison up in Yorkshire, an old fashioned Left candidate,” one Unison insider said.
There’s another reason that Holmes could do well. Unlike Labour party internal elections, which operate proportionally on an AV system of preferences, all trade union elections are still done on a first past the post basis. “He could come through the middle,” says one Unison old hand.
Crucially, union elections have a much more left electorate than for Labour elections because they have members affiliated to other parties, like the SWP and others. “It’s not a Labour electorate,” a union expert said. “It’s impossible to really call who will win, it could be any one of the three.”
Whoever wins the Unison general secretary job will want to cement its new position as the UK’s number one union, with a massive 1.4 million members, and the fastest growing in Europe.
Its influence on Labour’s ruling NEC has grown, however, since Corbyn’s defeat. As well as its own two reps, the union’s Scottish official Johanna Baxter is a constituency rep, while former vice president Carole Sewell is the Bame rep.
“Unison’s strength has seemed artificially low in the last few years because it was growing at the same time Unite got all the headlines,” one of its key figures said.
“We have felt left out in recent years. We’ve got 1.3 million public sector workers, a huge pool of potential Labour voters that Keir needs, health and social care staff, bin workers, manual workers, all the people he has to win back in Red Wall seats.”
Of the three union races, however, the real potential banana skin for Starmer is Unite. After 10 years at the helm, with two re-elections to his name, Len McCluskey has dominated the union, with many admirers on the Left.
One veteran said that McCluskey’s profile was so high that even some members of other trade unions think he’s their own general secretary.
But his tenure coming to a close and the four main contenders expected to run are Steve Turner, Sharon Graham, Howard Beckett and Gerard Coyne.
McCluskey has been repeatedly cryptic about his intentions but the latest intelligence from within the union is that he now wants to “go long” and serve out his full term which ends in April 2022. However, under union rules that ensure at least six months are needed for the election process, that would still mean the race starting next year.
Some insiders think McCluskey has opted to give more time for Howard Beckett to build up his industrial base. Others believe that he simply wanted to put down a marker that he’s not a “lame duck” general secretary and can still have influence on national politics.
Assistant general secretary Steve Turner, a former bus conductor and shop steward, is seen by many as the favourite. He recently won the vital endorsement of the United Left faction of the union, after a closely fought selection against Beckett another assistant general secreary.
Turner was briefly a member of Militant and has a long record on the Left that make it all the more infuriating for his supporters when some Beckett supporters suggest he’s ‘right wing’ because he has shown a willingness to work with Starmer.
A Millwall football fan who used to go to matches with the late RMT leader Bob Crow, Turner even at one point had a “MillwallMilitant” private email address.
“Steve is a pragmatist. You can do a deal with Steve. A lot of people who organised for Len are backing Steve,” said one Unite insider, on condition of anonymity.
“Moderate” flagbearer Coyne, a former West Midlands regional secretary, came within roughly 5,000 voters of defeating McCluskey in the last contest, a surprisingly close result that spooked many on the Left.
But since then, union rules have changed so that any candidate has to win 152 local branches of the union to even stand. Turner will almost certainly cross the threshold, but others may struggle.
The change infuriated some in the union. “The double standards of Unite’s leadership has been on show in their determination to raise the threshold for nominations needed from union branches for GS candidates, making it harder for anti-establishment candidates, while demanding Labour does the opposite for its leadership elections,” one long-time union and Labour insider said.
Coyne supporters are confident he can meet the threshold. “If he can get the branch nominations, he’s got a good chance. He ran last time and name recognition matters.”
Those who know Coyne point out that he puts the members first, even when it’s uncomfortable for Labour. When the Labour-run Birmingham council threatened 6,000 redundancies, Coyne was quietly asked to avoid making a fuss ahead of the local elections but refused to back down.
One MP who thinks Coyne can win the Unite race says he has been smart so far not to launch a campaign. “Gerard is right to lie low for now and watch the Left just take lumps out of each other. First past the post [election], isn’t it?”
Another figure with strong Labour and union links said change was overdue: “Unite as well has coasted for too many years on past glories, haemorrhaging members and failing to recruit sufficient new younger members in new sectors.
“Too often the damage has been self-inflicted: Independent minded and effective officials and recruiters at Unite have been viewed as a political threat by the pro-Corbyn establishment and either bullied or paid to leave, further denuding the talent pipeline.
“Several of the brightest and best were poached by steelworkers union Community which has recruited far more successfully in new areas, including the self-employed.”
Sharon Graham is an outsider candidate whose supporters believe she can pull off a surprise victory.
In July, she described herself as “the Workplace Candidate” focused on delivering an industrial programme. Though overwhelmingly of the Left, she already has support from some “moderate” activists who don’t share her politics but admire her organisational ability.
Graham has made a name for herself with campaigns that included sending activists dressed as rats to protest against bosses. She benefits from a network of organisers who one ex-insider describes as “a union within union”.
“She’s played it cannily so far. She decided not to run for the United Left because she knew that if she lost she would be out of the race completely,” a union official said. One active Unite member told HuffPost UK: “I’ll wager that when all is said and done and Len has resigned, the next general secretary of Unite, when the vote is held, will be Sharon Graham.”
A split Left?
But Beckett is the one candidate who could really cause Starmer a headache. Despite a traditional agreement that defeated candidates in the Unite Left selection then drop out of the race, Beckett has told the BBC he will run.
He has however yet to formally launch any campaign and his supporters say he and all union officials should be focused on fighting Covid job losses rather than an election that has no vacancy yet.
“He proved that he doesn’t act collectively, it’s all about him,” one left-wing critic says. “It’s going to be tough for him to get the branches because he has little institutional support within the union, particularly among industrial activists.
“Even though he has a following on Twitter, many of those people aren’t actually in the union. You need to be known at branches, at combines [meetings] of convenors, of shop stewards, to get through to our members. The damage he could do to Steve is the real problem.”
Beckett has previously run on a radical platform that appeals to some of both Corbyn and McCluskey’s supporters, including a “Unite TV” station that would be a left-wing alternative to Netflix and the BBC.
Currently a member of the Labour NEC, he has often been vociferous in his criticism of Starmer. He has attacked the Labour leader for pushing for the reopening of schools and for his sackings of Rebecca Long-Bailey, Ian Lavery and Richard Burgon.
In one tweet he warned Starmer and Boris Johnson against trying to “dump the pandemic fallout on the working class”.
“Howard thinks he’s the smartest lawyer in the room. And then Keir speaks, and you know who’s the smartest lawyer in the room,” said one NEC member.
But disunity on the Left could be Beckett’s biggest problem. Jane Taylor, a Unite rep who sits alongside Beckett on the NEC, tweeted at the time her dismay that a leftwing faction in Scotland had decided to reject the United Left result and instead back Beckett. “Very sad day for the left,” she said, adding there was no “a sense of betrayal”.
The other problem for Beckett is that many of Unite’s executive committee are also members of United Left. Bad blood between Beckett and the United Left group was underlined in an exchange of letters seen by HuffPost UK following Turner’s victory.
Beckett wrote that “it is very clear from the regional data alone that the rules of this election have been broken. Intentionally so.” In reply, United Left’s committee gave a 10-point rebuttal and criticised “your on-going refusal to accept the legitimate outcome of the ballot”.
A solicitor from Northern Ireland, his critics in the union say he’s a millionaire with no history of its shop steward tradition. But Beckett has a valuable ally in Karie Murphy, Jeremy Corbyn’s former chief of staff and a close friend of McCluskey’s.
Beckett’s hopes of getting on the ballot paper could rest with Unite Community, a section of the union set up by McCluskey to further its political ambitions. Membership is just £25 a year rather than £150 plus for traditional members and it has up to 10,000 members. “It’s Continuity Len, in many ways, and was the swing vote in 2017 in squeaking it for him. It could help Howard this time.”
Some within the union believe its credibility was undermined when it opted to formally endorse Rebecca Long-Bailey in the Labour leadership race, even though plenty of Unite reps liked both Lisa Nandy and Starmer. In the end, Long-Bailey came third in the union section of the contest, while Starmer romped home with 53% of affiliates’ votes.
One insider adds that the figures were even worse for McCluskey. Unite so dominates the affiliates that it has roughly 75% of the union section, so a 53% win for Starmer could only come from him realistically getting a majority of Unite members. “Keir won among Unite, not many people realise that,” one source said.
In fact, Starmer could benefit hugely if he uses Unite members as a sounding board for his policies, not least because many of them live and work in those Red Wall seats he needs to regain. “Lots of our members read the Sun and the Mail and voted Brexit,” said one insider. “If Keir can listen to their concerns, he can help us claw back those seats from the Tories.”
One senior Labour source said that Starmer could “live with” all of the general secretary candidates in all the union races. “Apart from Howard.”
Starmer’s immediate focus for Labour is on the anti-Semitism report due to be published by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. His allies within the party are also concentrating on internal elections for places on the ruling NEC, with nine constituency reps, disability, youth and Wales reps all up for grabs.
He is firmly staying out of the union elections, even though some MPs will be working behind the scenes to help organise for some candidates.
But whoever wins the three big union elections in 2021, their respective votes on the NEC could give Starmer a freer hand, or act as a brake on some of his plans.
Some other unions think that Unite in particular needs to learn from recent months. One example of how the Left can overreach itself emerged recently during the row over the party agreeing to make out of court payouts to whistleblowers who took part in the BBC Panorama programme on anti-Semitism.
A raft of NEC amendments was tabled on the Forde inquiry into a leaked document on the affair, and on some of them the leadership was ready to engage. But when leftwing activists issued a legal letter to try to stop the NEC approving the payouts, the leadership promptly decided to vote down every single amendment.
“This is where they are getting it wrong,” said one key trade union figure. “They can’t dictate terms to the party leader. Keir’s people become more entrenched and the Left won’t get a majority for any of what they want. It’s just not smart politics. We on the Left have to be smarter.”
Another veteran union activist said the heavy defeat for Labour at the last election could not be forgotten quickly.
“There’s a Tory government with a majority of 80. Len put all his money on a radical Corbyn government and that’s gone. The new GSs [general secretaries] have to secure the best deal for their members now and focus on the workplace, not Westminster,” they said.
“There are Tory MPs now who have big union memberships in their seats so they have to do business with them on a daily basis. Johnson says he wants to rebalance the economy towards manufacturing and industries like defence and steel are heavily unionised so can have an impact.”
One leftwing member of the NEC said that getting Starmer, and Labour, elected in 2024 had to be the basic principle that united all unions.
“If Steve [Turner] wins, I think he’ll get a relationship with Keir that will be similar in many ways to Len’s with Ed Miliband: very supportive, with public endorsements that are helpful to both sides.
“Although he won’t obviously agree with everything the leader does, just as Len didn’t with Ed, he will publicly say [as McCluskey did] ‘this is the prime minister this country needs’.
“Steve’s very left wing and will fight hard, it’s a joke for anyone to claim he’s some kind of centrist. But he knows his prime job is representing members while at the same time getting a Labour government. And Labour needs to win.”
A few weeks ago, McCluskey signalled that he wasn’t ready to give up his broader ambitions for Labour’s direction. “People have to brush themselves down, but the reports of the Left’s death are greatly exaggerated,” he said.
One senior former party insider puts it another way. “It was 19 years ago, after 9/11, when Tony Blair said the kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux. That’s what it’s like right now with the union leaderships. Who knows where the pieces are going to end up?”