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7 October 2020

Unite has reduced its affiliation to Labour. What happens now?

The short-term consequence will be to increase the influence of the party’s other major affiliated trades unions.  

By Stephen Bush

What are the political implications of Unite reducing its affiliation money to the Labour Party by 10 per cent following a vote of its national executive?

The immediate consequence for Labour’s internal politics is to make Keir Starmer’s job marginally easier. Labour politics is pay-to-play, in that the size of your affiliation determines your influence on the conference floor and thus your ability to block or facilitate the leadership’s wishes, to elect your own people to the affiliate section of the party’s National Executive Committee, and so on. Of course, the extent to which this benefits Starmer is yet to be determined, because the forthcoming leadership elections in Unison and the GMB could mean that those unions go from being allies of Labour’s centre and right to allies of the party’s left. What we can say for certain is that it boosts the party’s other trades unions and affiliates, which acquire a slightly increased share of the delegates on the conference floor.

A significant, but underreported, boost for Jeremy Corbyn came early in his leadership when the trade union Community pared back its affiliation, thereby reducing its influence. Because of Unite’s size, reducing its affiliation by 10 per cent won’t change the union’s status as a power player in Labour politics. It will, however, make it marginally easier for Starmer to do what he has done fairly consistently throughout his leadership and bypass Unite. 

As I’ve written before, a Labour leader is at their most powerful when they have multiple paths to a NEC majority, because they are less beholden to any one part of the party. Corbyn had a reliable majority, but because he was dependent on Unite, his radicalism was curbed in a number of areas, not least the future of the aviation industry and the proposed third Heathrow runway. 

The challenge for Unite, regardless of who replaces Len McCluskey as general secretary in 2022, is that the only way to meaningfully influence Labour through its affiliation is to curtail its own indirect influence, at a time when the party is not struggling to raise money from outside the labour movement. As one Corbynsceptic trade union leader mused to me during the Corbyn era, the problem for the big trades unions is they have only two bullets in their gun, a warning shot and a killing blow, and neither is particularly effective unless the party is in a financially precarious position. The combined effect of former general secretary Iain McNicol’s cost-cutting measures during Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the Corbyn-inspired surge in party membership, means this is not currently the case for Labour.

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[see also: After McCluskey: who will win Unite’s crown?]

The bigger question is – where will the money go instead? Unite’s official position is that the funding will go to political campaigns and grass-roots organisations, but there are a variety of views within the union’s leadership about what exactly this should mean. Some think the money should be funnelled towards politically sympathetic candidates in parliamentary selections, potentially remaking the Parliamentary Labour Party from below, as MPs stand down in 2024 and as candidates are selected in marginal seats. (Almost everyone at the top of British politics, left or right, assumes that Labour will gain at least some ground at the next election. This makes seats right at the outer reaches of the Conservative majority, such as High Peak or Bury South, prime opportunities to shift Labour’s internal political balance.) 

Some think the funding should go to “Labour-adjacent” campaigns – in an attempt to shift the debate on issues as varied as climate change or tax justice. Others believe the money should be devoted to organisations that are more focused on local or community campaigns.

So what Unite’s affiliation change means for Labour’s internal politics is still an open question; it is not just about how the union spends its money instead, but also how effectively the other major trades unions manage the gap it has left.