Few will be surprised that Unite has reportedly given no money to the Labour party since Keir Starmer took over as leader. Unite boss Len McCluskey and those around him were hardly thrilled at Starmer’s victory in the leadership contest. Why? Because they knew that it represented the end of the far left’s control over Labour. But if McCluskey is seeking to undermine Labour’s new leader, this will end badly and ultimately benefit only one person: Boris Johnson. It will also make the prospect of another thumping Tory win at the next election more likely. And, what’s worse for McCluskey, is that it could speed up the death of unions like his.
The tension between Unite and Starmer is the perfect place to start if you want to understand the mistaken path many trade unions have taken over the past decade, and yet on which they still seem eager to double down. The 2019 election – and the Tories' resounding victory in Red Wall seats – showed all too clearly that the Labour party had lost touch with the type of voters they had traditionally relied on.
But Corbyn’s dismal defeat should also have shown something else: that it was a big mistake for unions like Unite to have endorsed him so wholeheartedly in the first place. Has McCluskey learned this vital lesson? I'm not convinced. And whether union bosses like Starmer or not, it's high time they recognise that he offers Labour a far more likely route to power than Jeremy Corbyn ever did.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Take Sweden, where around 70 per cent of the work force is unionised, including the majority of white-collar workers. This was achieved by professionalising unions; by having them focus solely on what was most required in order to get workers the best possible deal from employers. This was partly accomplished by selling union membership, not on the notion that to do so is to join an organisation rallying against capitalism, but as a useful and effective way for workers to get better wages and conditions. The typical union rep in Sweden can be characterised less as an angry man shouting about general strikes down a bullhorn, and more as a lawyerly person in a sharp suit who knows how to take down a corporation’s legal team in under an hour. Someone a lot like Keir Starmer, not coincidentally.
British trade unions need to stop living out some imagined ideological war with Margaret Thatcher that they think they still might win, and instead figure out a way to make themselves relevant to 21st century Britain. I cited the Swedish example, but there are lots of ways that they could make themselves a lot more functional than they currently are.
If Unite doesn’t want to give money to the Labour party, fair enough. Perhaps they could start to seriously re-engage with the Conservative party if they don’t think backing Labour is the best bet for their workers. After all, four in ten Unite members voted Tory at the last election, according to YouGov. Yet this is clearly not what Len McCluskey and others have in mind. They appear to want a repeat of the disastrous Corbyn experiment, something that will fail to benefit the workers they are there to represent.
Trade unions, like any other organisation, do not have a God-given right to exist. Either they must figure out a way to be much more relevant to working people than they are now, or they will sink even further away from relevance. In the UK, only one in four workers belong to a union. It seems that many workers fail to see how a union can help them and as a result don’t sign up. And who can blame them?
Unions are at a tipping point in Britain; they cannot afford to go on playing silly games and expect to wield any influence. And if a union has no influence, it ceases to have a reason to exist. For as long as some British trade unions yearn for a return to Corbynism, the Labour party will struggle to move on – and Boris’s re-election efforts will be helped. If unions really want to help their workers, it’s high time for them to ditch the student politics and remember what they stand for: the interests of their members.