Unite set to grow in strength as it begins merger talks with TSSA

Len McCluskey's union enters negotiations on a formal merger with the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and more could follow.

Labour Day brings notable news from the trade union movement. Unite and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) have announced that they have begun merger talks to form the UK's "first-ever cross-transport union". If successful, the TSSA, which has 23,000 members to Unite's 1.5 million, could become a new section of Unite by February or March next year. The TSSA was previously in merger talks with the RMT but according to Union News, "failed to resolve differences over the TSSA’s continued Labour Party affiliation and RMT’s backing for non-Labour candidates in parliamentary elections.

Unite itself was formed in 2007 through a merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union and when I interviewed him last week, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey told me that he was "open to a merger in principle with every union", describing it as part of Unite's "strategy for growth". 

I’'m open to a merger in principle with every union, well, maybe there'’s one or two that I wouldn'’t, but I’'m not going to name them. But yes, of course, we will talk to any union...I'’ve already had discussions with several unions since becoming general secretarty and that is part of Unite’'s strategy for growth”.
After McCluskey's attack on the "Blairite" shadow cabinet ministers last week, the move has prompted concern among some on the Labour right, with one "Blairite" telling the Times: "It concentrates more power in [McCluskey’s] hands,” said one Blairite last night. “TSSA is a union with lots of middle class, professional workers who would not conform to Len McCluskey’s view of the world. They are the sort of people who vote for Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems.

"The attempts by McCluskey to drag us back to the dark ages have been very disappointing."

But most in Labour are far more troubled by the possibility of another merger, that between the PCS, led by Mark Serwotka (who blogged brilliantly for the NS earlier this week on welfare reform), and Unite. 

At their annual conference this month, PCS members will vote on whether to begin merger talks with Unite to form a super union of 1.75 million members. The prospect of Unite, Labour's biggest donor, combining forces with a union that is not affiliated to the party has concerned Labour MPs, who fear it could lead to a reduction in funding. Unite was responsible for 28 per cent of all donations to the party last year and has donated £8.4m since Ed Miliband became leader. 

When I spoke to McCluskey he refused to rule out the possibility of a full merger.

“The PCS have their conference in May and my understanding is they'’ll be discussing the whole question of the future of PCS, so I suspect what we all should do is wait for the outcome of that conference. From Unite’'s point of view, we are always engaged in discussions with sister unions about whether there’'s a legitimacy for us to work closer on the one hand or, indeed, merge together on the other hand. There'’s certainly no formal discussions taking place with PCS and I think we should just allow their democratic process to happen and we'’ll see what comes out of that and then Unite will react to it.”
Of the concerns expressed by some in Labour, he said: 
I’m open to a merger in principle with every union, maybe there’s one or two that I wouldn’t, but I’m not going to name them. But yes, of course, we will talk to any union. As I said, I’ve already had discussions with several unions since becoming general secretary and that is part of Unite’s strategy for growth.
A Unite-PCS merger would be the most significant event in the trade union movement for years, so the the latter's conference will be worth following closely when it opens three weeks today. 
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Cameron attends a press conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron rules out military action in Syria without Labour support

A downside of Corbyn for the Conservatives.  

Many have written that Jeremy Corbyn's likely election as Labour leader will give the Conservatives free rein to pursue their desired politics. But with a majority of just 12, their room for manoeuvre is more limited than suggested. In an Evening Standard column in July, I noted that Corbyn's success could deny David Cameron the Commons majority he needs to extend military action against Isis to Syria. 

Speaking in Spain today, where he is discussing his EU renegotation, Cameron said that he would "only pursue going further on this issue if there is genuine consensus in the UK". That is a signal that military intervention would require bipartisan support. The Prime Minister is still stung by his defeat over the issue in 2013 - the first time a government had lost a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782. Having previously opposed the extension of air strikes from Iraq to Syria, Harriet Harman said in July that Labour would look "very, very seriously" at any proposals to "tackle the growing horror of Isil".

But Corbyn, to put it mildly, does not share this view. Asked during last night's Sky News hustings by Liz Kendall whether there were any circumstances in which he would approve the use of armed force, he said: "Any? I am sure there are some. But I can’t think of them at the moment." He went to argue that interventions required UN backing to be legitimate: "We should have stuck with the UN and given far more support to the UN," he said in reference to the Nato action in Kosovo. "Surely we want to live in a world that is based on the rule of international law. the UN is quintessentially part of international law." 

As well as the potential that a Corbyn leadership has to shift the terms of debate leftwards, forcing the Tories to adopt a more centrist position, this is another reason why not all Conservatives relish the prospect of his victory. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.