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2 June 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:01am

Trade unions have spent too long amplifying Labour fantasies. It’s time they got back to reality

Out of all the candidates fighting to lead Unite, Gerard Coyne would be the most focused on getting a better deal in the workplace. 

By Philip Collins

Against a backdrop of apathy and to no great fanfare, important events are unfolding within the Labour movement. The candidates to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite, Labour’s largest affiliate union and biggest paymaster, are seeking the branch nominations needed to gain entry to the ballot of members. Already, we are deep into the arcane language of a movement in love with its own procedures. The rules are Byzantine and the initial electorate is limited to committed activists, so winning the right to stand is much of the battle.

It has got harder, too. The threshold for getting on to the ballot was raised, for this contest, from 50 to 174 and the definition of what constitutes a “branch” was loosened. This allows activists to take even greater control and three of the candidates – Steve Turner, Howard Beckett and Sharon Graham – are, lo and behold, salaried employees of the union. Only Gerard Coyne, who had the temerity to challenge McCluskey in 2017, is not. He was, but his punishment for standing four years ago was suspension. Coyne hopes to do even better than he did last time, when he came close to winning – 41 per cent to McCluskey’s 45 per cent. And, with the three other candidates all appealing to the left in an increasingly acrimonious contest, he could yet come through the middle. If he is allowed to stand.

[See also: Why Keir Starmer’s Labour has no true interest in power]

The candidates will be nominated by 7 June and the 1.4 million eligible voters will then have between 5 July and 23 August to vote, though only a fraction of them will do so. In 2017 McCluskey’s narrow victory was won on a turnout of little more than 12 per cent of members. It’s a hugely unsatisfactory process that, unfortunately, still matters. In addition to a seat on the National Executive Committee (NEC) and half of the votes on the floor of the party conference, there is the small matter of the £1.3m in affiliation fees that Unite gives to the Labour Party and the £3m bequest to fight the 2019 election.

Sharon Graham has warned there is “no blank cheque” for Labour. Howard Beckett, an assistant general secretary of Unite, who has been suspended from party membership for publishing a tweet that said “Priti Patel should be deported, not refugees”, has already put Keir Starmer on notice. Beckett has said there should be a change of leader if Labour loses the Batley and Spen by-election on 1 July and has suggested, none too subtly, that the party leader should not have to be an MP. Both Beckett and Graham are threatening to withdraw funding if Labour, in Beckett’s words, “continues down its path and no longer speaks for working people”.

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Beckett might just be on to the endgame there. The Labour Party does not represent the working class at present and the unions are not strong among that group either. Since the peak in 1979, trade unions have lost around half their members, which are now 6.6 million in number. Around a quarter of today’s workforce is a member of a trade union and these are not the people they once were. The proportion of employees who are union members is greater for those with a higher qualification, such as a degree, than it is for those with lower-level qualifications or none at all. Four in ten trade union members are in professional occupations, which account for less than a quarter of the British workforce. Trade unionism is becoming a public sector redoubt, strong in education, public administration and health. This is no longer the movement of Labour legend, either in scope or in character.

[See also: When red walls come tumbling down]

Nobody inventing a British social democratic party today would think to propose an institutional link with the trade unions. The story of union decline can be traced back through the genealogy of Unite. A series of mergers, which began as a search for strength and ended as a parade of weakness, created Unite in 2007 out of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Amicus, founded in 2001, was itself the product of a merger between the Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) union and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU).

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Meanwhile, MSF was formed by a 1988 merger of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (created when the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians merged with the Association of Scientific Workers and the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section, which was itself the product of a merger). And that is just one side of the family. The AEEU has just as crooked a story. It is a tale of single trade unions coming together for greater weight, but with all sense of occupational singularity lost as mergers attempted to stave off decline. It is rather like an amateur darts player ending up on double-one because they can’t hit anything else.

Maybe trade union politics shouldn’t matter in the Labour Party, but it does. Steve Turner is a man the party could do business with, even though he is the candidate of the United Left faction. Beckett or Graham would create a mess. The only exciting prospect is a victory for Coyne that would herald a return to a traditional form of trade unionism, one focused on getting a better deal in the workplace and one that only intervenes in Labour politics to support the sensible leadership against a restless party membership.

The role of the trade unions in the history of the party has been, in fact, salutary. When Labour activists have lost touch with reality, the unions once brought them back down to Earth. Sadly, in recent years, the consolidated unions have found leaders who amplified the utopian fantasies of the members. It would matter considerably if a leader emerged at Unite who could help ground them in pragmatism. 

[See also: Keir Starmer’s Labour has dozens of policies. So why don’t I know what it stands for?]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West