I believe in trade unions but the Unite machine alienated me

I joined the union as a fresh-faced student idealist but the camaraderie which I expected never materialised.

As the fallout over Falkirk continues and Labour calls in the police to investigate its biggest financial backer, some sections of the media can barely contain their glee at Unite’s troubles. The reactions of ordinary union members have, as usual, been excluded from the discussion. They cannot be heard over the cacophony of middle class media pundits and Oxbridge observers who lack a grassroots understanding of the problem.

As a former Unite member, news of the alleged scandal was accompanied by a familiar sinking feeling. I left the union earlier this year under a burden of disappointment and anger.

I’d joined Unite at the start of 2012 as a fresh-faced student idealist, one of the first to join under their pioneering community membership scheme, which embraces students, the unemployed, the disabled and others outside the traditional workplace.

Before I hear you groan, I was not - and am not - a fair-weather student revolutionary. I was raised in a working class, trade unionist family. My father was a night sorter for the Royal Mail. As a child I watched my parents struggle under the financial burden of regular strikes, ensuring that my brother and I had dinner while they discreetly went without.

We were brought up to believe in the justness of trade unions and the necessity of sacrificing short-term income for a greater collective good. When my brother was diagnosed with autism and his care requirements became clear, it was our father’s union which helped him negotiate family-friendly hours. It was in this context that I joined Unite, with a childlike belief that unions could do no wrong. I was quickly disabused of this idea.

Soon after joining I began to involve myself in Unite’s activities. I attended a training weekend and later stood for election on a committee of young members. I planned to attend a conference and, in the time-honoured tradition of democracy, give a speech about my suitability for the role. When illness prevented me from attending at the last minute, I tried in vain to contact the appropriate union official to pass on a speech to be read in my absence. When nobody replied in time, I was angry that I had been denied the right to stand for the committee position.

My anger turned to confusion when, weeks later, I received a letter congratulating me on winning my committee place and inviting me to the first meeting. How on earth, I wondered, did I win an election in which I was not present and had no speech? I now held some executive power over the youth policies of Unite’s London and Eastern branch, without attending a single Unite conference. A little discomfited, I didn’t attend the committee meetings. The invitations kept coming, and nobody contacted me regarding my absence. Looking back now, it seems extraordinary.

There were murmurings of unease among other young members I encountered. Even the most strident  muttered about the indifference they encountered from higher-ups regarding queries and problems. Such criticisms tended to be couched in the more gentle language of "communication difficulties" and the need to "update infrastructure", but their meaning was clear. These observations would be briefly acknowledged and quickly glossed over without progress being made. Unity was our watchword and we were all comrades in the good fight, but there was an unspoken understanding that being too direct about the union's problems would make you appear disloyal. Members quietly assumed that individual thoughts and opinions should automatically play second fiddle to a wider purpose. To criticise was to mark you out as an individual in an organisation deeply focused on the collective. Everyone, myself included, yearned for a place within this good and noble collective. To be an individual was, fundamentally, to be selfish.

There were other moments of unease. One training day took an awkward turn when a young member dared ask why we were given an equalities monitoring form where everyone was lumped into either "white" or "BME" (Black and Minority Ethnic). The workshop leader simply ignored her and changed the topic. The girl who’d rasied the question was visibly disgusted.

Greater disappointment was to follow. When Unite advertised an admin apprenticeship within their offices, I was keen to apply. Unfortunately the link to the application form was broken, so I notified the union. I did receive a reply, assuring me it was being looked into. As the days ticked by and the application deadline loomed, I emailed again and again urging them for answers before time ran out.

There was no further reply, and the deadline passed me by. My point of contact never got in touch to explain her silence or apologise for the missed opportunity. I began to regard Unite as a vast and ponderous machine, rumbling on, regardless of its members’ needs, in aid of some more obscure purpose. The camaraderie with which I expected my union to enfold me never materialised. With deep sadness, I cancelled my membership.

After witnessing firsthand Unite’s relaxed attitude to democracy, the accusation that it manipulated the selection contest in Falkirk is sadly not a surprise. I hope for the sake of the trade union movement that Unite is innocent of the accusation. Trade unions still have a crucial place in the modern world in helping people fight back against unscrupulous employers, low wages and poor conditions. If you believe that all employers will simply be saintly without checks and balances, then you are a far bigger idealist than me.

All the same, it isn’t hard to understand why unions might feel compelled to opt for underhand methods. Look at their relationship with the media: there isn’t one. In a recent conversation with a friend who had worked for a national broadsheet, she complained that in her experience, unions had failed to reach out to journalists and put their side across. They were aloof and surly towards outsiders.

As a result, a generation has grown up with a mainstream press that promotes ambivalence or hostility towards unions. Myths have sprung up: unions are bad for business, they are troublemakers and, that old chestnut, they promote "health and safety gone mad". We live in a country where many have never encountered a pro-union opinion in their lives and think of unions as a sinister cabal.

The truth is that they have failed to do the legwork to secure support the proper way - by building relationships with the media and communicating with the ordinary people they claim to represent. It’s no wonder that people are mistrustful.

In perhaps the greatest irony of all, Unite continue to send me ballot papers for their referenda and leadership elections. It is a good thing, then, that I throw these away and do not choose to exercise the undue influence of which they stand accused.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's spending cuts on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.