The 2015 General Election was a turning point for the Labour Party. UNITE’s Political Strategy had not long been in place but we had achieved the selection of nearly 50 UNITE Parliamentary candidates to fight the election. We were disappointed that Ed Milliband and Ed Balls did not adopt the bold manifesto promises we had lobbied for but had instead gone for the “austerity-lite” option. The subsequent election defeat led to Ed Milliband’s resignation and call for nomination for a new Labour Leader. Some 28 UNITE candidates were successfully elected as new MPs in the election, and although some did not support Jeremy Corbyn, those that did were key to getting Jeremy Corbyn past the 35 nomination threshold to get him onto the ballot paper.
ASLEF was the first union to formally endorse Jeremy Corbyn for Leader, quickly followed by many other unions including UNITE. This followed a lengthy debate at UNITE’s Executive Council which culminated in an overwhelming vote to endorse Jeremy Corbyn. UNITE invested more time and effort than any other union to increase its affiliated supporter base within UNITE, achieving almost 100,000 potential voters, higher than all the other union put together. UNITE campaigned with all its members to support Jeremy Corbyn for Leader. With majority union support and massive enlarged membership vote (Labour membership had rocketed to over 500,000), Jeremy Corbyn was convincingly elected with almost 60% of the vote, more than the three other candidates votes put together. Whilst Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper polled 17-19% each, the most telling vote was Liz Kendall’s paltry 4.5%. As the official New Labour candidate, this spelt the end of New Labour and Progress as a potent political force within the Labour Party.
UNITE’s steadfast support for the democratically elected Leader of the Party was called to the test several times during Jeremy’s first difficult year as Labour Leader. Len McCluskey spoke out publicly and behind the scenes to warn against any thought of a coup by the PLP. The EU Referendum result in June 2016 was used as a pretext by Shadow Cabinet Ministers and the majority of the PLP to try and unseat Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. UNITE NEC members played a crucial role in the special Labour NEC that followed that voted narrowly (18 votes to 14) to support the Rule Book and allow the incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn, automatically onto the ballot paper, the second Leadership election in a year. His re-election with an increased share of the vote over rival candidate Owen Smith was in no small part down to UNITE’s support.
UNITE backs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell because they represent a positive shift away from the neo-liberalism of the Blair and Brown era, and “austerity-lite” era of Milliband and Balls. Like us, they oppose austerity and want to secure the nation’s future prosperity by using the public sector to invest in the renewal of our crumbling infrastructure and our decimated public services, build up our manufacturing base and transform our economy to meet the challenges of both climate change and the digital technological revolution. Creating more jobs, getting our economy on the move again – yet achieving sustainable growth that reduces our carbon gas emissions – are essential if we are to wipe out the debt and restore the Government’s finances. That is a much better formula than endless austerity spending cuts which hit the poorest in our society the hardest and actually hamper the nation’s economic recovery.
Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 Labour Manifesto was bold and visionary and showed how a new invigorated left-leaning Labour Party can renew its appeal to old and young alike. Some of the key messages were:
- £10 national minimum wage
- End to zero hours contracts
- Council house building programme
- Scrap tuition fees
- National Investment Bank
- Public ownership of rail, water and key energy producers
- Reclaim the tax avoided and evaded by the wealthy and big business
- No new taxes for workers on less than £85,000 pa
- Reintegrate NHS and social care into a fully-funded, first class, wholly owned public service
- Reinvestment in schools and college education and reverse academies/free schools etc.
- A new deal for workers and trade union rights, including restoring sectoral collective bargaining
UNITE has worked closely with Labour’s front bench on detailed policy covering a huge range of issues across the industrial and political spectrum. Never before have we had such cooperation and genuine support from Labour’s front bench towards real live working class issues that we as a union are fighting for. No-one in UNITE is questioning anymore our union’s affiliation to the Labour Party (although it’s true we still have to win over some of our members as to why we support Jeremy Corbyn).