“Are you a red or a blue?” asks the general secretary of Trades Union Congress (TUC) two minutes into our interview. He’s speaking via video call from his office in Congress House, the TUC’s headquarters Bloomsbury, central London. But Paul Nowak isn’t interrogating my politics; it’s much more important than that.
“Red or blue” is what demarcates the two great Merseyside footballing tribes. Britain’s most senior trade unionist is an Evertonian. I’m also a blue, I tell him. “The interview can carry on then,” he says.
He’s quickly sussed me out and heard that we share an accent, though, strictly speaking, he’s from the Wirral peninsula, not Liverpool proper. And without my prompting, he wants to tell me about his time at Liverpool Polytechnic and his memories of student Marxism. “I didn’t attend very often,” Nowak, 51, tells me, “but my wife maintains that I got through university by recycling the same essay on ‘the Militant Tendency on Merseyside’ for every assignment.”
The imprint of that tumultuous period on Nowak’s home city is still evident. Trotskyist entryists last exerted influence on Liverpool council in the 1980s, deliberately setting deficit budgets, and launching themselves on a collision course with Margaret Thatcher. But one of the lasting legacies of those battles is a narrative that Liverpool has been unfairly maligned, and a broad anti-Tory populism still resonates here. Football fans sing “f*** the Tories” on matchdays. Supporters on the terraces at Nowak’s beloved Goodison Park have unfurled banners exhorting people to “support Everton on the pitch and Labour in the election” – a sentiment with which Nowak undoubtedly agrees. Liverpool’s politics has stood him in good stead. “Because my lecturer was a Marxist, regardless of the value of my academic work I got a good score,” he confides.
When he speaks at the TUC’s annual conference in September, for the first time since becoming general secretary in December 2022, it won’t be hard for the tabloids to place Nowak in a long tradition of bolshie Mersey militants. “I fit every stereotype of a Daily Mail trade unionist,” he says. “I’m a slightly overweight, balding Scouser who gets a little bit too aerated.”
But Nowak isn’t the tub-thumping firebrand you might expect. At 17 he became a rep for the GMB union. Two years later he joined the Labour Party. “I’m a trade unionist first and foremost,” he says. “I was just always a union activist, working in call centres, supermarkets, working as a night porter in a hotel, temporary contracts with agencies, all of it.” When asked to describe his politics, he hesitates. He presides over a labour movement as diverse as the broad church of the left itself, encompassing communist radicals alongside the softer representatives of office middle managers. “I’m sort of a pragmatic but ambitious socialist,” he surmises.
Len McCluskey, the former leader of Unite and another Liverpool trade union man, tells me Nowak is “a good lad” and that he’ll be “a good general secretary as soon as he finds his feet”. For good measure, McCluskey recounts that he used to share a garden fence with Nowak’s wife. “Lovely family,” he says. Maybe they plotted the downfall of capitalism together.
Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South, tells Spotlight that Nowak was a “great trade unionist” because “his members always come first”. She’s from good Liverpool stock, too – her grandfather was the folk singer who wrote “In My Liverpool Home” – but her politics is a long way from McCluskey’s. McGovern used to be chair of the Blairite Progress faction of Labour, and she’s just beaten Mick Whitley, the Corbynite incumbent, to be the next candidate for Birkenhead constituency (boundary changes mean her present seat is being abolished). “He never gives it the big ‘I am’,” she says, “and during the pandemic, Paul and [his predecessor] Frances O’Grady knew straight away that we had to protect workers’ incomes.”
Nowak also wants to tell this story during our interview. He counts the pandemic furlough scheme as a “huge policy success” for trade unions that “wouldn’t have happened by accident”; there was important early intervention by the TUC (he was deputy leader at the time).
According to McCluskey, O’Grady will be “a hard act to follow”. Nowak worked with her for many years – he was a beneficiary of her initiative, the Organising Academy, his stepping stone from being a serial workplace shop steward to a paid employee of the TUC. He shares her anti-austerity, Labourite politics (O’Grady became a Labour life peer in December last year).
Nowak has taken over as a figurehead of a revitalised trade union movement. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of days lost to strike action, and union membership is rising after decades of decline. “I want to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of trade union members who have taken strike action,” he says. But they have their work cut out for them. The Chancellor and the governor of the Bank of England have called for pay restraint to fight inflation, even while real wages are falling and supermarkets, banks, shipping firms, energy providers and oil and gas companies enjoy record profits.
If Labour is to win the next election, Nowak says, “we need a national conversation about taxes”. The party has so far refused to back any extra taxation on high earners, save for closing loopholes such as non-dom status and VAT exemption on private school fees, which will both raise comparatively small amounts. Labour has ruled out new wealth taxes and the equalisation of capital gains and income tax (something the Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson managed in 1988), and, in the Johnson era, the party even failed to back the increase in corporate tax rates pushed forward by the Tories.
“I told the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday… we need to talk about tax, because there hasn’t been a cost-of-living crisis for everybody,” says Nowak. “Porsche had its best year for car sales last year in the UK. Up by a third while families are struggling to make ends meet. Clearly somebody is doing OK in the UK economy, and we’ve got to make sure that companies and wealthy individuals pay their fair share.”
With widening inequalities, squeezed living standards and collapsing services, shouldn’t Labour be offering a radical, transformative economic programme? We’re speaking in the week that the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, came under fire for toning down her promise to spend £28bn a year on green investment – a British version of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Nowak wants to see such an agenda embraced here. The TUC sent a team to the US to research that legislation after Nowak became general secretary.
But Nowak jumps to Reeves’s defence: “Labour is still committed to £28bn. I never thought that you could come into office on day one, write a cheque and have projects ready to go… But it’s clear that we can’t get to net zero just by leaving it to the market. The government is going to have to intervene and it’s going to have to find money as well.”
These arguments reflect wider splits in the labour movement around the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Unite and GMB bosses recently condemned Keir Starmer’s pledge to allow no more oil and gas exploration licenses. Nowak, the son of an oil rig worker, is loath to take sides. “All our unions are committed to decarbonising,” he maintains, but “we’re not going to get rid of oil and gas completely. Certainly not in the next couple of years. And oil and gas also have a role to play in the chemicals industry – beyond energy, in other sectors, it’s absolutely key.”
Fossil fuels are still essential in the energy-intensive production processes for the manufacture of glass, steel, cement and other products that are essential to advanced industrial economies. If working people are to be won around to the green transition, Nowak says, investment needs to focus on well-paid, good quality jobs. “Offshore wind has got a much worse health and safety record than offshore oil and gas,” he says. “Some of the work is really low paid. With reforestation, retrofitting, home insulation, a lot of this is barely above minimum wage. So I absolutely get union concerns.”
And any kind of public investment needs to come with strings attached, Nowak says. “We need to link the agenda around the Green Prosperity Plan, infrastructure, the £28bn on the one hand, and the New Deal for Working People, Fair Pay Agreements on the other.” The latter two initiatives, led by Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, would bolster workers’ rights, repeal recent anti-trade union legislation and establish minimum terms and conditions across sectors. This is green, environmentalist politics, combined with Keynesian fiscal stimulus, and union-oriented labour politics: in other words, it’s the probable future of 21st-century left.
“It’s about how we’re going to use investment, not only to get to net zero, but to get there in a way that supports, protects and creates good quality jobs. So we need conditionality. The British taxpayer and British bill-payers have been subsidising big energy providers to develop offshore wind, and those turbines are being manufactured either over in Denmark or being shipped from the Far East while yards in Scotland lie empty.”
There is, he adds, “an absence of smart industrial strategy”. Theresa May’s strategy was quietly dropped by the soon-to-be-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng during his time leading the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Kwarteng, an arch-Thatcherite, said he wanted to “mark a departure from the industrial strategy brand”, uncomfortable with the idea that the state should take an active role in directing investment and shaping markets. But this kind of interventionism is back in vogue, accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, the war in Ukraine and deglobalisation, and it is now seen as an essential policy part of the decarbonisation of Western economies.
Nowak has personal experience of poorly managed industrial shifts. “I grew up in Merseyside in the Eighties and Nineties, and it’s a perfect example of what happens when you don’t manage an industrial transition properly,” he says. “People are still paying the price.” This time, we need to get it right.