This year’s Labour Party conference could mark the moment that trade union leaders reveal themselves as Jeremy Corbyn’s most unreliable allies.
Their actions could play a decisive role in events that dictate the fate of his leadership.
Corbyn has relied on the support of trade union leaders—particularly Len McCluskey, general secretary of Labour’s biggest donor, Unite.
This has always been a shaky alliance.
McCluskey likes to pose as a supporter of Labour’s leadership. But last year—before Labour’s success in the general election—he hinted that Corbyn had just 15 months before he would force him out.
GMB union leader Tim Roache “proudly” campaigned against Corbyn in 2016. And Unison leader Dave Prentis has repeatedly attacked Corbyn and the left.
Corbyn weathered weeks of smears as the right tried to force the party to accept its definition of antisemitism. Labour’s code of conduct now insists that it is antisemitic to call Israel a racist state.
The game was up when Roache, then Prentis, then McCluskey, said Labour should adopt that definition.
Labour’s ruling national executive committee did just that thanks to the votes of those union’s representatives.
And, despite Corbyn’s long standing opposition to nuclear missiles, Labour still backs renewing Trident missiles thanks in part to the votes of unions.
Labour Party conference could see more betrayals.
In particular, union leaders could swing a vote on whether Labour backs a second vote on Britain’s membership of the racist and neoliberal European Union (EU).
More than 100 Constituency Labour Parties have reportedly submitted motions calling for a “People’s Vote” on a future exit deal with the EU.
The motions have been championed by right wing factions in the party as a way of pushing Labour into opposing Brexit altogether.
Labour’s leadership has rightly avoided both calling for a second referendum and opposing Brexit.
But since the vote to Leave, it has constantly fudged its own position—neither backing remaining, nor making a clear left wing case for leaving.
Instead it has made semi-retreats and compromises—such as seeking “access” to the pro-privatisation European single market.
Crucially, this has helped the right to sell opposing Brexit as something progressive to left wing, Labour members who support Corbyn.
If Labour conference votes to back a second referendum it will be a huge victory for the right.
At last year’s conference delegates overwhelmingly voted not to debate motions on Brexit that could have led to defeat for Corbyn.
Those opposing them included the influential Corbyn-supporting Momentum faction.
This year Labour’s leadership may not be able to avoid the debate—and the vote on whether or not to have a second referendum may not be so clear cut.
If it’s a close call, the votes of one or two major unions will probably swing it.
After the TUC union federation last week voted to support a “People’s Vote,” it looks likely that union delegates will back the right’s motions.
History shows why unions back the right wing’s People’s Vote initiative
Last week the Blairite faction Progress emailed its members to let them know “how you can help back up the unions on Brexit”.
When its members were leading Labour, they would have broken the party’s links with the unions entirely if they could. Now they look to the union leaders as their allies against the left.
It’s a strange turn of events. But a look at Labour’s history, and the role that union leaders have played in it, can help explain.
Leading Labour figures—left and right—often like to boast of how their party was formed by the trade unions. It’s more accurate to say it was founded by trade union leaders.
A union leader’s job is a balancing act. They have to show their members that they can win improvements in living and working conditions, and sometimes this involves strikes and conflict with the bosses. But they have to mediate between the two, so try to limit their members’ gains and struggle to the confines of what bosses find acceptable.
When Labour was founded in 1900, trade unions had just suffered a series of major defeats. Their leaders looked to forming a party to represent their own interests in parliament.
The idea was that union leaders would look after industrial, economic matters while Labour politicians would deal with politics.
They would promise to represent workers in parliament. But they would also attempt to govern in a shared “national interest” of workers and bosses, and appeal for support from all sections of society.
This division meant there has often been an antagonistic relationship between union leaders and Labour politicians—especially when workers’ struggle has challenged the bosses or threatened to cost Labour right wing votes.
But politicians and union leaders share an interest in limiting the demands of Labour’s ordinary members, who look to the party to bring real change. So for much of Labour’s history union leaders have acted with the Parliamentary Labour Party against the left.
This was especially true during the 1980s when, in the wake of the defeat of the Miners’ Strike, union leaders were seen as natural allies of the right.
The relationship began to change under the right wing leaderships of John Smith and Tony Blair. Smith rammed through changes giving union leaders less say at party conferences.
Blair in particular saw the link with unions as an obstacle to his vision of Labour as a purely pro?business party.
Under Corbyn, union leaders are back in the fold. But they won’t let Corbyn commit Labour to scrapping nuclear weapons because they think defending the arms industry means protecting their members’ jobs.
The GMB union supports fracking for the same reason.
And they don’t want Britain to leave the EU because they believe that what’s bad for the bosses is also bad for their members.
There are limits to what union leaders will accept from the left. And, over some of the most crucial questions, they’ll come down on the side of the right.