By Nick Clark
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Union leaders split over who should head Labour as candidates shift right

This article is over 4 years, 3 months old
Issue 2689
Lisa Nandy is backed by the GMB
Lisa Nandy is backed by the GMB (Pic: Kevin Walsh)

Trade union leaders are split over who to back to be the Labour Party’s next leader and deputy leader.

The Unite union—Labour’s biggest donor—last week backed left wing candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader and Richard Burgon for deputy leader.

Yet two other major affiliated unions—Unison and the GMB—have backed more right wing candidates.

The GMB last week announced it backs Lisa Nandy for leader. She has promised a shift away from the left wing politics of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership with a focus on towns and smaller cities.

Nandy is still vague about what this means. But she has said she would drop some of Corbyn’s more ambitious policies.

Meanwhile the Unison union has backed knight commander of the order of the bath sir Keir Starmer QC.

Starmer championed the policy of backing a second EU referendum—a position that was crucial in Labour’s defeat in last year’s general election. Despite this he is backed by most Labour MPs, who think the party has to move right to regain working class votes.


Union leaders have considerable power inside Labour and have traditionally acted as a block against the more left wing party membership.

They tend to accept that Labour has to govern “responsibly”—not threaten big business too much—and appeal to right wing votes.

Yet in recent years some union leaders—such as Unite’s Len McCluskey—have backed the left.

They saw Corbyn’s leadership as an opportunity to regain influence.

McCluskey said Unite backed Long-Bailey because “she believes in lots of the radical policies that have been developed over the last few years”.

But he added, “I don’t know that she agrees with all his policies.”

Long-Bailey believes that Labour needs to move right to win back votes.

She backs Angela Rayner for deputy leader rather than the left wing Burgon or Dawn Butler.

And at a campaign event in east London last week she promised to end “abuse” of right wing MPs.

Crucially, she also backs policies that severely restrict criticism of Israel and will be used against left wing party members.

Her main pitches to the left are to replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, and to allow party members to choose their candidates ahead of elections.

It’s a step back from the sense of an outward-looking movement that characterised Corbyn’s leadership campaigns in 2015 and 2016.

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