Trade Unions

What does the Unite election mean for Labour?

20 August 2021

By Tim Nailsea

Much of the recent interest in the Unite General Secretary election has been the result of the union’s influence in internal Labour Party politics. Len McCluskey was a central supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – providing funding, staff for the Leader’s Office and vocal support in the media and the trade union movement.

Howard Beckett, who pulled out of the election, advocated a confrontational approach towards Keir Starmer, while Steve Turner of the United Left favours reconciliation with the new Labour leader. Gerard Coyne, the hard right candidate, argues that the union should essentially accept everything the right of the Labour Party demands. Whereas Sharon Graham believes that there has been too much focus on politics, and we should go “back to the workplace”.

The role of Unite in the Labour Party thus looms large in the debate about the future direction of the union. However, the true nature of Unite’s role in the party is distorted – often wilfully – in that debate. Despite what both enemies on the right and friends on the left say, Unite’s leadership has far from been a bastion of socialist politics in Labour, either historically or during Corbyn’s leadership. Its strategy has been, in many respects, marred by the same limitations and failures which have always characterised British trade union leaders’ approach to politics.

Red Len and Red Ed

Both unions that merged to form Unite – the TGWU and Amincus – were affiliates of the Labour Party and Unite continued in this tradition. The 2010 election, three years after Unite was formed, saw the union establish itself as one of the main supporters of Gordon Brown’s troubled election campaign. The union mobilised full-timers and activists despite thirteen years of privatisation and attacks on unions under New Labour, and Brown’s terrible response to the 2008 economic crisis.

Following Brown’s defeat and the election of the Tory-Lib Dem austerity coalition headed by David Cameron, Unite, under newly elected General Secretary Len McCluskey, threw its weight behind Ed Miliband for Labour leader. Thus ensuring his victory over New Labour favourite, his brother David Miliband.

Although his association with Unite and his radical family history led the Tory press to dub him “Red Ed” (they had already named McCluskey “Red Len”), Miliband’s politics were far from radical. His campaign materials heavily featured anti-immigrant slogans, he refused to back striking workers and he was equivocal on opposing austerity. Ironically, the Parliamentary Labour Party, fearing Unite’s influence in internal Labour politics, pressured Miliband into introducing a new leadership election system which allowed supporters to register and vote – coupled with revisions of party rules to require union members to opt into, rather than out of, contributing to the political fund. These reforms were implemented with the wrongheaded assumption that Labour supporters would be less radical than the unions and the membership. It was this error which led to Jeremy Corbyn’s election after Miliband’s defeat by Cameron in 2015.

During Miliband’s tenure as Labour leader, Unite’s role was far from militant. Most significantly, in 2011, Unite failed to throw its weight behind the public sector pensions dispute – support which was necessary for a coordinated union fightback against austerity. Instead, the union recommended that its local government members accept the government’s pensions offer, and only played a marginal role in the health workers’ strike.

McCluskey and his United Left faction invested all their hopes in a Labour victory in 2015, and worried that militant strike activity would put Miliband in a difficult situation when trying to win middle-class voters. McCluskey often talked left, supporting the People’s Assembly and its non-threatening demonstrations and rallies, and was occasionally pushed into supporting strikes; but was desperate to keep things under control.

The political strategy was simple. Unite would use its considerable resources and influence to get a friendly Labour leader elected. This leader did not have to be a radical socialist – who was less likely to win an election – but merely had to be someone who recognised that they needed Unite’s support. Unite and the left then needed to fight to get that leader elected as Prime Minister, and then the union could once again exert its influence over that leader once they were in Number 10.

The problem with this approach is that it leads to the consistent subordination of industrial to electoral strategy and the role of the union leader becomes the demobilisation of trade union militancy to ensure Labour’s election. The continued dominance of the PLP and the Labour Front Bench over policy also raises serious questions over how effective the union would have been in influencing Miliband if he had won.

Unite’s Role in the Corbyn Movement

When the Labour leadership campaigns began in 2015, Len McCluskey and the Unite leadership initially favoured Andy Burnham over Jeremy Corbyn, just as they had supported Miliband over John McDonnell in 2010. The reasoning was that Burnham was more likely, in their opinion, to win the leadership and a general election; and it would be better for Unite if it had a leader beholden to it. It was only when Corbyn’s insurgent campaign took off, and there was a wave of enthusiasm amongst Labour members and supporters, including Unite members and officials, that the union leadership swung its weight behind him.

Once Corbyn became leader, there is no doubt that McCluskey and Unite became a key bastion of support. Under fire from all angles – the Tory press, the BBC, the PLP, Labour’s own officials – Unite was one of the few sources of unequivocal defence. Unite’s money continued to underwrite Labour’s electoral efforts and its officials provided much of the staff of the Leader’s Office.

There were important areas of policy during Corbyn’s time in charge of the party where the Unite leadership’s role was far from progressive. Its role as one of the few bastions of support for Corbyn often allowed it to exert influence over and above that of party members and activists. In a constant war of attrition with the PLP, Corbyn did not want to open up a second front against the trade union bureaucracy.

On several key issues – Trident, the arms industry, fossil fuels – the Unite leadership’s ideas regarding the sectional interests of its members led it, with other unions, to attempt to oppose or water down more radical policies. McCluskey and the Unite leadership’s reactionary politics regarding immigration led them to push for continued emphasis on immigration controls. They also scuppered attempts at democratisation of the party itself out of fear of losing their own institutional power. This would have a significant impact on the left after Corbyn’s defeat in 2019, when, with the loss of the Leader’s Office, were left with no democratic mechanisms of control over party policy, and Starmer’s rollback of all the gains made since 2015 was assured.

Reformist Trade Unionism

Unite’s approach to Labour in 2015-19 was really a continuation of its strategy under Miliband – exert influence in Labour, get Labour elected, then exert further influence to enact favourable policies. It is noticeable that during the period of Corbyn’s leadership, no coordinated campaign of industrial militancy took place, even less than there was in 2010-15. All hopes were invested in Corbyn’s bid for Number 10.

This has by and large been the standard approach of reformist trade union leaders throughout history. Trade union leaders tend to be – with very few exceptions – Labour supporters with some version of reformist politics. They have no confidence in the idea of mass working-class activity bringing about the socialist transformation of society. They fear that such activity will disrupt their own relatively privileged positions in the capitalist system. They act as mediators between the demands of their working-class memberships and those of capital. The Labour Party is seen as a major arena where such mediation takes place. Demands can be lobbied for within the party’s structures, debated, composited, amended and produced as policy, then enacted through government and parliament.

Failure to deliver on the industrial front, as we saw in 2010-11, can be offset by the promise of victory on the electoral front, which leads to the former always becoming subordinated to the latter. In fact, continued industrial failures can lead to trade unionists increasingly investing their hopes in electoral victory for Labour, out of desperation if nothing else.

Political Trade Unionism

One of the underlying premises of the reformist trade unionist approach is the artificial division between political and economic struggle. While unions such as Unite are free to exert influence on Labour politicians through the medium of the party, the PLP is still granted full leadership on policy questions and the need for them to be elected is given primacy over trade union members’ need to exert industrial power.

The right wing of the trade union bureaucracy, epitomised in the likes of Gerard Coyne, thus insist upon a rigid separation of politics and unions, arguing that the left union leaders should stop “meddling” in Labour. Left union leaders such as McCluskey or Steve Turner, on the other hand, while making no effort to subordinate political representatives to the needs of the class struggle, invest hopes for incremental gains in exerting influence upon them. Sharon Graham has simply swung in the other direction. While her radical rhetoric regarding industrial strategy is in direct opposition to Gerard Coyne’s ideas of collaboration with the bosses, she counterposes that with involvement in the Labour Party, and all but argues for the complete abandonment of the political struggle.

We must oppose any attempt to separate the political and economic struggle. There are many demands that trade unionists must fight for – a raise of the minimum wage, support for the unemployed, nationalisation, measures to tackle climate change, opposition to imperialism – that can only be resolved at the level of the state. Political organisation, in the form of a socialist working-class party, is necessary to achieve this. Socialist trade unionists must fight within the union movement for a united political strategy that represents the interests of the class as a whole. This cannot be found in the Labour Party as it is currently constituted, and will only be achieved if the right – which means the majority of the PLP, the party bureaucracy and right-wing trade union bureaucrats – are driven out, and a new workers’ party with an anti-capitalist, socialist programme is formed.

A truly democratic mass workers’ movement would, among other things, insist upon the complete subordination of its parliamentary representatives to the discipline of the rank-and-file membership. They should not be a separate institution to be lobbied or horse-traded with by trade union leaders, themselves largely unaccountable to their own members, but representatives who are in their positions because of workers’ support, and therefore completely beholden to them.

A movement for the socialist transformation of society may require participation in electoral politics and the election of representatives, but when this is made the primary consideration, above and beyond the building of workers’ power and organisation in the workplace and on the streets, then the means has become an end in itself. Whichever candidate wins the Unite General Secretary election, there is a struggle to be had over the union’s political strategy. From the extreme of Coyne’s complete industrial and political demobilisation and collaboration with the Labour right, to Graham’s apolitical approach and Turner’s plan to reconcile with Starmer and rebuild Unite’s influence in the party. Neither of the left candidates stand for an uncompromising struggle for the political interests of the working class, independently of and against the bosses and their representatives. This must instead be taken up by the organised rank and file and demanded of the new leader.


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