GMB head feigns innocence over £1m Labour funding cut

Paul Kenny claims he's just doing what Miliband wants but his move was an unambiguous vote of no confidence in the Labour leader's reforms.

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny chose to feign innocence when he arrived at Portcullis House for his meeting with Ed Miliband earlier today, the day after his union announced that it was cutting its affiliation fees to Labour from £1.2m to £150,000. "What's all the fuss over? All we're doing, if you like, is going towards what Ed says he wants," he remarked

But as Kenny knows, the objection is that he has pre-emptively disaffiliated 88% of the union's political levy-payers from Labour, rather than trying to persuade more to sign up once an opt-in system is introduced. It was an unambiguous vote of no confidence in Miliband's reforms.

In its statement yesterday, the GMB, the third-largest union, also warned of "further reductions in spending on Labour party campaigns and initiatives". For Labour, which relies on large one-off donations from the unions to fund its general election campaigns, it was an ominous threat. 

Privately, however, some in the party are more sanguine. They regard Kenny's move as a negotiating tactic designed to deter Miliband from reducing the unions' voting power in leadership elections and at party conferences. The GMB is not due to implement the funding cut until January, leaving Miliband wtih time to reach an agreement. But the dilemma is already becoming clear: does Miliband pursue comprehensive change and risk losing even more funding, or does he compromise and risk being accused of bottling reform? 


A GMB member protests outside parliament over cuts to public sector pensions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that most firefighters are not Corbynites. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.