One of my more memorable experiences from this year’s conference season was having a “friendly” chat with some high ranking representatives from the GMB regarding Britain and the European Union. They were none too pleased at the time down in Brighton, particularly about the line that Corbyn had taken around that subject. They felt like he’d climbed down from his soft-Euroscepticism into support for staying in the EU no matter what, thus giving what they thought was a “blank cheque” to David Cameron. Though I tried to fight my little pro-EU corner, I could fully see their reasoning. They exist to protect their members interests, so why should they say they will support staying in the EU at all costs, even if it turns out to be detrimental to GMB members? If renegotiation falls badly for their people, in theory anyhow, it does make sense they would want to see what to do at that stage. They were especially hacked off with Corbyn given the reason he’d cited for having the party take an explicitly pro-EU line was “party unity” – which was then made a hash of when he took an anti-Trident position that most of his MPs do not support, or for that matter any of the top people at the GMB.
I bring all this up as it made me wonder at the time if perhaps many of the union bosses were having serious buyer’s remorse regarding Jeremy Corbyn. But then Len McCluskey piped up this week to make his position clear:
“(Corbyn) has been denounced for writing to MPs and party members making his views on Syria clear – as if his huge mandate, which included support for his long-standing anti-war record, had simply earned him the right to be seen but not heard.
“Any attempt to force Labour’s leader out through a Westminster Palace coup will be resisted all the way by Unite and, I believe, most party members and affiliated unions.”
So what I want to ask now is a serious question, one that has large scale implications for the next decade of British politics: if there is a serious split in the Labour Party, would the unions go with the hard left or the centre-left?
I brought up the GMB in Brighton anecdote at the start to demonstrate that such things are not obvious, either way. While there are tranches of trade union movement thinking that fall in line with Corbynista thinking – high top rates of tax, nationalising certain industries – other bits really grate badly – Trident, the whole patriotism thing (union bosses can be surprisingly socially conservative in many respects), security issues in general. In fact, it’s the last one that seems to me could be the tricky bit for Corbyn. Union bosses tend to be reasonably militaristic (thus, the pro-Trident angle) and even kind of nationalistic, albeit in a soft, 1950s kind of way, and do not share the “We Are the World” (except for the Yanks, who can of course take an imperialistic piss up a rope) outlook on foreign policy that is the hallmark of the Corbynistas. So there is a real question to answer here should the Labour Party divide.
I think if the unions went with the Corbyn faction they would be consigning themselves to final oblivion in this country. Which I think most of them must know. For while I often don’t agree with your average union boss on a whole lot, I’ve spent enough time around them to know they are anything but stupid.