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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.