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29 April 2020

How the resignation of the GMB’s general secretary could impact Keir Starmer’s leadership

Much of the Labour leader’s project lives or dies on his ability to get his business through the NEC – a mission to which the GMB trade union is crucial.

By Stephen Bush

Tim Roache has stood down as general secretary of the GMB, the United Kingdom’s third largest trade union and Labour’s third largest affiliate, in news that will reshape both trade union and Labour politics.

In small-l labour politics, the GMB represents workers in industries as varied as nuclear power, aviation, defence procurement and the gig economy. If you have taken an Uber, or switched on a light, the leadership of the GMB has potential implications for you.

It also has major implications for Keir Starmer’s freedom of manoeuvre. The GMB backed Lisa Nandy for the Labour leadership, in part due to Roache’s personal political preference for Nandy, and Starmer’s initial appointments have heavily reflected the need to bring the GMB onside. Jo Stevens, one of his three appointments to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), was chair of the GMB parliamentary group. Nandy is, of course, shadow foreign secretary. 

While Starmer’s majority on the NEC is not dependent on the GMB, a Labour leader’s power comes not only through having a NEC majority but through how many routes to a NEC majority they have. One reason why Unite was so influential under Jeremy Corbyn is that they were his majority maker, and he had no alternative route to one. A Labour leader is at their most powerful when they have multiple alliances and multiple ways to get their business through the NEC. 

And much of Starmer’s project lives or dies on his ability to get his business through the NEC. His pledge to remove anti-Semitism “by the root” cannot be accomplished without the support of the NEC. His hope to professionalise Labour’s organisation cannot be accomplished without the support of the NEC. 

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A major story for small-l labour politics could yet reshape big-L Labour politics too.

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