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The GMB endorses Owen Smith. What does it mean?

Owen Smith's campaign has received an unexpected boost.

In a contest devoid of shocks, the GMB’s endorsement of Owen Smith is the closest to a surprise in a Labour leadership race that otherwise looks like a procession for Jeremy Corbyn.

Why does it matter? Because unlike Usdaw, Community and the Musicians’ Union (which endorsed Smith) or the TSSA, Aslef or Unite (which have endorsed Corbyn) they did so following a “consultative ballot” of members, and the result is a 20-point victory for Owen Smith, with 60 to 40 per cent.

For Labour’s Corbynsceptics, who have faced a series of setbacks, it represents a shot in the arm. If – and it’s a big “if” – GMB affiliates turn out in large numbers, then that would easily overwhelm Corbyn’s lead among ordinary party members. It will also bolster the argument made by Smith’s campaign that the balance of £25 supporters is far less pro-Corbyn than is commonly supposed.

It also represents an endorsement of the series of fiercely-contended polls of trade union members, commissioned by Ian Warren, who worked for Labour under Ed Miliband, showed support for Corbyn slumping among trade unionists. Trade union affiliates can vote without a fee in the Labour leadership race, representing a big source of pro-Smith votes, or at least the theory runs.

Is the spring in the Corbynsceptic step justified? Well, very few trade union affiliates voted in the last leadership election, despite a well-funded effort by Organise Consulting to sign up trade unionists on behalf of Unite. There is little evidence that pattern will be broken this time – so anyone hoping for an inrush of pro-Smith trade unionists is likely to be disappointed. The sole YouGov poll of the race so far showed Corbyn winning by 20 points among Labour members, and that pattern is broadly supported by his success in securing nominations from constituency Labour parties. It looks unlikely that enough trade unionists will vote to overcome Corbyn’s advantages among members.

It’s also worth noting that as ever, there are complaints about process. In Labour politics – small and large “L” alike – the hand that controls the maillist tends to control the world. It may be that the GMB’s members vote very differently when ballots are issues.

What is likely to be more important is that it will provide Tim Roache, the GMB’s General Secretary and a Corbynsceptic himself, the cover to be more critical of Jeremy Corbyn over the coming months, and allow the GMB’s representatives on the NEC to vote against Corbyn more freely, if – as still looks likely – he is re-elected. Among other things, that makes Tom Watson’s plan to seek a rule change to restore Labour’s electoral college look more likely to succeed, and Team Corbyn’s hopes of removing Iain McNicol will be thrown into doubt.

So while it feels unlikely that GMB’s endorsement will change the outcome of the battle, it may represent a decisive shift in the longer struggle for supremacy. 

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

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear