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.
Graham Brady illustration
Show Hide image

Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle