London protest against war on Gaza. Photo: Ian Pattison
London protest against war on Gaza. Photo: Ian Pattison

Socialist Party members in Unite

A well-attended special online meeting of the Unite Broad Left (BL) took place on Sunday 5 November. The BL meeting had been organised to report back on the two emergency Unite Executive Council (EC) meetings that took place on 26 October and 3 November, called to discuss the union’s approach to the crisis in Gaza.

The Unite BL has been formed over the last few months to bring together all those in the union who want to defend the manifesto on which Sharon Graham was elected in the 2021 Unite general secretary election. Sharon’s victory has been the basis for the union building a militant industrial strategy that has seen Unite wage over 900 disputes, winning 80% of them.

Socialist Party members have warned that a new left was also needed in Unite because the Unite United Left (UL) has not accepted Sharon’s victory nor the militant industrial trajectory of the union under her leadership. With a Labour government on the cards, the UL is fighting for Unite to retreat from its position under Sharon Graham’s leadership of being prepared to take action against Labour-led authorities. On this issue, the UL has the weight of the capitalist class behind it, who are betting on a Labour government attacking workers’ pay and conditions with less industrial opposition than they faced under the Tories. Starting to build a strong left in the union, fighting to defend and extend Sharon’s fighting industrial stance, is therefore urgent.

Socialist Party motions

In the 2021 Unite policy conference, a motion inspired by Socialist Party members was passed, calling on Labour councils to stop passing on Tory cuts and instead pass no-cuts needs budgets. This was reaffirmed at this year’s conference against the UL’s recommendation, with the conference also seeing a Socialist Party member successfully move the motion opposing the new Tory Minimum Service Levels anti-union legislation, calling on the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to organise a mass demonstration and to coordinate action, including in the form of a 24-hour general strike.

EC members reported to the BL meeting that it was clear that the UL, particularly on the EC, unable to openly oppose the union’s strike strategy, is using the issue of Gaza to attack Sharon’s leadership, following an insufficient initial statement produced by the union. They reported to the meeting that UL supporters were the main elements that prevented the first emergency EC meeting approving a better union statement on Gaza. They tried to justify this because the draft didn’t mention ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) against Israel. The second EC meeting, eight days later, did agree a statement, calling for “an immediate unconditional ceasefire” – a position in clear contrast to Starmer – but the UL supporters abstained.

The EC report and subsequent discussion did allow an airing of the key issues necessary both for Unite and across the unions and the workers’ movement in opposing the Israeli state’s attack on Gaza.

Socialist Party members argued that there are key issues which BL supporters need to raise within the union. Primary in these are the central role that the unions must play in the anti-war movement, both on a national scale in mobilising for the mass demonstrations in London and around the country, but also in defending workers who refuse to carry out work in industries and services that aid the Israeli war effort.

This would be a far more concrete expression of resistance than the BDS imagined by the UL – in reality it would amount to ‘workers’ boycotts’ – following in the tradition of reps and members of a forerunner union of Unite at Rolls Royce in Scotland in the 1970s who had refused to work on parts for the Chilean Air Force, which had been a key force in the 1973 coup against the socialist Allende government. Unfortunately, this vital issue was not included in the executive statement.

However, the meeting heard the welcome news that BL supporters had played a key role in producing a statement from the Unite EC members for the aerospace and shipbuilding sector and its lead defence convenors and reps. It condemned “the massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas on 7 October”, but opposed “the bombardment and blockade of Gaza and calling for an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages in Gaza, an end to the Israeli blockade and international aid to Gaza with water, food, fuel, medicine, and electricity being restored to the levels that existed before the current conflict started.”

Such a statement could be an important step in opening up a discussion between union reps and members working in affected industries.

In addition, Socialist Party members argued that Unite needed a political dimension to its opposition to the Israeli state’s horrific offensive against Gaza and the Palestinians. The union should clearly criticise Starmer for his tail-ending of the Tories, in refusing to oppose the war or even call for a ceasefire. It was pointed out that the Unite National Labour Party Liaison Committee, made up of Unite members with Labour Party positions, passed a motion to “demand that Keir Starmer immediately issues a public statement calling for the above two demands, an immediate ceasefire and allowing In humanitarian aid, and that any prohibitions issued by David Evans on elected Labour representatives attending or speaking at Palestine events is rescinded.”

Unfortunately, at the second emergency EC on 3 November, a number of motions were ruled out, including one that Socialist Party members had moved. Apparently, this was done on the grounds that it would allegedly have led to Unite being disaffiliated from Labour. But this is a contestable argument.

Starmer’s New Labour

The resolution included criticism of Starmer’s New Labour writing “to Labour MPs and councillors saying ‘they must not, under any circumstance’ join Palestinian solidarity protests. We need political representatives who oppose the capitalist elites and stand for the rights of the working class and oppressed here in Britain and internationally.” It went on: “That has to include standing in solidarity with people in Gaza today. We would welcome trade union-backed candidates standing in the general election on that programme, including Jeremy Corbyn, who has been banned from standing for Labour.”

The argument used at the EC echoes that used in the debate over the union’s relationship with Labour at this year’s rules conference. We have to only back candidates endorsed by Starmer, it was argued, or be expelled from Labour.

But in reality, there is nothing in Labour’s rules that says Labour affiliates – as distinct from individual Labour Party members – cannot support candidates outside of Labour. No action was taken against those Labour affiliates who supported anti-Labour candidates when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, nor against the Jewish Labour Movement – an affiliated society – agreeing a ‘work to rule’ at the 2019 general election, to only support Labour candidates who supported them. It would be the decision of Starmer and the Labour right, against the background of these profound events, if they wanted to interpret their own rules in this way and expel their party’s biggest financial backer for daring to back candidates who called for a ceasefire in Gaza!

Disgusted by Starmer’s role, many in the BL meeting were supportive of our criticism of the Labour leadership and were prepared to listen to the idea of the need for Unite to develop a political strategy that supported our policies and members taking action, as well as opposing this brutal war.

Many of the themes in the meeting will be carried forward into the union by BL supporters in ensuring that Unite plays an essential role in the anti-war movement.