The weekend brought welcome news with the announcement that Unite, Britain’s largest trade union and Labour’s largest donor, would be backing Jeremy Corbyn after a vote of 34 to 13 on Unite’s 63-person Executive Council. To this, Jeremy also has the largest transport union, the RMT; the train drivers’ union, Aslef; the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), with some expecting the GMB to follow soon.
These union endorsements have been welcomed by the Corbyn campaign – but after all, how could the trade unions back any of the other candidates who are so committed to continuing Labour’s support for austerity? He is the only one proposing policies which will not harm living standards, such is the dismal state of the Labour leadership election.
But while Jeremy’s endorsements have generated a lot of noise this week, the real task is now to translate them into ballots with a small ‘1’ next to his name. Union members can of course, under the new Collins system, affiliate as supporters of the Labour part at no extra cost and secure a vote. Unite has over one and a half million members, far and away the largest of any trade union in Europe. That is now a pool of potential Jeremy supporters.
Last week, I wrote that Jeremy would have to find 100,000 more first preferences than Diane Abbott did last time. Jon Lansman’s analysis has explained why Corbyn is probably already doing far better than that, while the Labour First blogger Luke Akehurst, no friend of Corbyn, has argued he could come second. The Left in the party has grown over the last five years to numerical strength, winning National Executive elections and giving Jeremy’s anti-austerity politics a very strong base in the party membership. This means that just a fraction of Unite’s membership’s opting in to vote, four or five percent even, would be enough to give Corbyn victory.
This makes it all the more important that Unite grasps this opportunity. I’ve heard reports from individual branches of affiliation drives signing up Unite members in droves, but what is needed is strong communication and a clear message from the Unite leadership – Jeremy is our candidate, not to protest the others, but to win, and that members should make use of the Collins system that Progress foisted upon us and affiliate to vote for him. Direct mail, press statements, regular emails, phone banks. Labour’s largest union could not have a better or more important message to put across to its members.
But we also need a grassroots campaign to complement that. Unite members should get in touch with Jeremy’s campaign centrally and ask what they can do. We should talk to our fellow branch members, pass resolutions in support of Jeremy and encouraging membership to affiliate in to vote, hold campaign meetings and much more. A genuinely rank-and-file “Unite members for Jeremy” that organises in workplaces, community branches and all sections and regions of the union will achieve more cut-through than any number of central statements. If you are a Unite member glowing with pride that your union has endorsed Jeremy – then get out and start organising your colleagues to follow their lead.
We must grasp the narrative that Jeremy is the only candidate offering support to trade unionists, the only candidate who has pledged to repeal not just Cameron’s but Thatcher’s anti-union legislation and restore collective bargaining, and that the only way Labour will reverse the decline in living standards sparked by austerity is by mobilising enough of the population, disaffected by politics, who choose not to show up and vote for one of three or four very similar parties. That can only be done with a clear, anti-austerity message, and only Jeremy is offering that.
The decision by the Unite Executive Council was brave and bold, and is already being attacked by the right. We should commend them for sticking to their principles, but now the real task must begin: turning a tiny portion of that vast Unite membership into hardened Corbyn supporters. If we can do that, then Jeremy will be leader.