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28 July 2022

Why Labour can’t afford to lose the trade unions

They have contributed 58 per cent of the party’s donations and loans so far this year.

By Ben van der Merwe

As the cost-of-living crisis intensifies, the UK’s trade unions are gearing up for a long, hot summer of industrial action.

The strikes have received little support from the Labour Party leadership, however. Last month, Keir Starmer ordered shadow cabinet members not to appear on picket lines. The shadow transport minister Sam Tarry was sacked last night (27 July) after defying the ban, prompting criticism from senior frontbenchers.

“There are a lot of people saying, I don’t know if I can stay on the front bench,” a senior Labour source told the Guardian. Party sources denied that Tarry was sacked for appearing on the picket line, saying instead that he was removed for conducting unauthorised media appearances and violating the collective responsibility of the shadow front bench.

Labour’s relationship with the trade unions is not just a matter of historical ties. The party continues to rely heavily on trade union funding, with the latter contributing 58 per cent of the Labour’s donations and loans so far this year (excluding public funds). 

That funding is likely to be particularly vital at a time when the party’s finances are reportedly being stretched to breaking point. Legal costs, an exodus of members, and reduced trade union support has reportedly cost Labour more than £3m, forcing the party to impose a real-terms pay cut on staff earlier this year.

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The party received just £20m in donations and loans from trade unions in the first five months of this year, compared with an average of £30m in the first five months of non-election years under Jeremy Corbyn.

Unite, previously the biggest single donor to the Labour Party, has threatened to withdraw its funding entirely. Its general secretary Sharon Graham has sharply criticised Starmer’s response to the strikes, describing Tarry’s sacking as “an insult to the trade union movement”. 

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Graham also said last month: “The Labour Party was founded by the trade unions and we expect Labour MPs to defend workers, by words and by actions. You don’t lead by hiding. No one respects that. It’s time to decide whose side you are on. Workers or bad bosses.”

[See also: Where does public opinion stand on the rail strikes?]

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