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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.