The GMB carries a lot of weight as Britain’s third largest union. Previously only smaller unions such as Community, Usdaw and the Musicians’ Union had backed Smith.
Successive Labour leaderships have for years tried to distance themselves from unions and dilute unions’ influence in the party. Many union leaders now support Corbyn, who always backed them.
But the GMB’s announcement yesterday shows that union support for Corbyn is not always guaranteed.
Union leaders want Labour to be “respectable”, and could drop Corbyn if they believe his leadership will make the party unelectable.
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson tried to tempt them away from Corbyn this week.
He suggested a return to Labour’s old “electoral college”, which gave unions a third of the vote in leadership elections. Previous Labour leader Ed Milliband had replaced this with a “one member one vote” system to undermine union influence.
In a statement yesterday GMB general secretary Tim Roache said he would “proudly campaign” for Smith because “It's time for us to face up to reality.”
He added, “GMB members cannot afford for Labour to be talking to itself in a bubble for the next five years”. The decision came despite votes at GMB’s conference in June for “clear and unambiguous” support for Corbyn.
The union balloted its members, and said that 60 percent of those voting backed Smith against 40 percent for Corbyn. Fewer than 10 percent of those balloted returned their votes—with some GMB members complaining that they didn’t receive a ballot at all.
Bea, a GMB shop steward in Sheffield told Socialist Worker, “Most of my members don’t seem to have had a ballot. I did a quick straw poll of members in my office this afternoon and only me and one other person had got an email.
“When I asked people in my office about it they just looked at me and said, what ballot?”
Kate, a GMB member in Leeds said, “I’m active in my branch. Most GMB members I know support Corbyn. But I didn’t see any push from the leadership to push the ballot. It’s clear that lots of people didn’t get one.”
The way the ballot was presented to members was weighted in favour of Smith. An email in Roache’s name linking to the online vote told them to vote “with your head and not your heart”.
It did not ask who members thought the GMB should back but, “who is best placed to win a General Election, to unite and lead the Labour Party into government and to put the policies we desperately need into practice.”
Kate said, “It was a stitch up – the way the email was worded. They were preparing the ground for a vote against Corbyn.”
Bea added, “We had a discussion about it in my office and everybody said they couldn’t believe the vote had gone that way—including some who would probably support Smith.
“The other person in my office who got an email thought that the wording was quite biased towards Smith. He was outraged by it.”
Smith supporters want to use the GMB ballot to show that activists who support Corbyn are out of touch with ordinary workers.
But the GMB leadership had not engaged most of its membership with the question at all. The scale of the rallies and meetings backing Corbyn give a better indication of the depth of his support.
Union activists need to organise in their workplaces and branches to stop their leaders backsliding.
Watson makes an elementary error
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson sent a dossier to Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday proving “Trotskyist entryism” in the Labour Party is a serious problem.
The term refers to the practice of left groups entering Labour to recruit members or take over the party’s structures. Watson had used a Guardian interview earlier this week to suggest that entryism was behind the strong support for Corbyn.
It listed of examples of various left groups supposedly trying to enter the party.
One example suggested that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was running “a training course to infiltrate Labour”. Its evidence was that the SWP has “produced a series of materials for members to work alongside Labour Party members and supporters”.
But while these articles argue for activists to relate and work with Corbyn’s supporters, they also argue against joining Labour.
Watson also quoted a passage from journalist Michael Crick’s book Militant to claim that activists were using the same tactics as the Militant tendency did during the 1970s and 80s.
But even Crick, who is by no means sympathetic to Corbyn, said this was mistaken.
He wrote, “Corbynmania is a far, far bigger phenomenon than entrism. If you concentrate on entrism, you’re missing the much bigger picture, and a quite extraordinary story.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have joined Labour to support Corbyn because they were looking for an alternative to the politics of austerity, racism and war. Not because they were bullied into it by Trotskyist entryists.