Why I’ve left Unite

by Jonathan Roberts

It was early in 2006 when I first joined Unite the Union (or Amicus, as it was then known).  I was active in my constituency Labour party, was running a blog and was ambitious to learn, grow and participate as fully as I could.

Soon afterwards I was encouraged to attend a residential course run by Unite to ‘educate’ those they felt may one day become a politician – as mad as the idea of my participation now sounds.  The surroundings seemed a little odd for a trade union HQ.  The huge mansion in Esher (“modelled on a French Chateau” as the Unite website describes it) was set amidst acres of sprawling Surrey countryside, slap bang in the middle of the banker belt.   It was so posh I swear it took me a week to shower off the smell of quinoa.  I don’t say that disparagingly – I’d love to live somewhere just like it.

It was a fascinating experience.  It started with a debate with German trade unionists, and moved through mock Newsnight-style grillings, writing and delivering a speech bestowing the virtues of the Labour-Union link and concluding with an interview conducted by two Labour MPs who questioned me on my ‘labourness’.

Everyone was very nice to me.  And as I was the youngest in attendance, I was genuinely grateful for the experience, not least because it prepared me for the unexpected media attention given to Thirsk and Malton at the general election in 2010, for which I was the candidate.

It was a few years later that I first publicly criticised union behaviour.  I was promptly told off by one of my fellow Esher students – didn’t I remember that a union had put me up in a mansion?  I should show some gratitude and toe the line.

That was the beginning of a journey that concluded last night when I resigned from Unite.

I should say immediately that I won’t be missed and nor should I be.  I’m not remotely important to the union movement, and you’ll be pleased to know that any political ambitions I once had have long since left my mind.  If you want to read the opinions of someone important, please do find them elsewhere.

My resignation is not a mark of being anti-trade union.  It is the exact opposite.  When trade unionism works well, it benefits everybody. But the persistent antagonistic tactics of the Unite hierarchy have resulted in a loss of good will not just from industry, but from the general public, and I fear that the harm done cannot now be reversed.

I’m sure in person he is an affable man, but in my view there is no greater threat to the hope of strong, responsible, decent and successful trade unionism than Len McCluskey and his most loyal supporters.

I won’t offer an in-depth analysis of the Grangemouth disaster – enough has been written already.  But if you think picketing the family homes of company bosses and intimidating their children, or putting hundreds of jobs at risk because one trade union official was under investigation for skiving off work, or ordering the PR team to ”dig up the dirt” on Labour MPs who disagree with union policy, is a decent way of representing the workers, then we’ll have to agree to disagree.  Likewise, if you believe that Grangemouth was the result of a “rogue official” and not an example of everything that is wrong with how Unite does business, I suspect we will not agree on that either.

I am not one of those people who says that the dramatic fall in union membership is down solely to Thatcherite laws, I believe instead that the behaviour of certain union leaders puts off millions of ordinary, decent people from joining.  For shame.

Now, whenever I’ve written anything criticising Unite before, I normally get two types of response.

1) Criticising Unite’s behaviour is akin to criticising millions of ordinary working people.

I had this on Twitter last night.  This argument is simply a system of control – an attempt to guilt members into supporting appalling tactics and weak policies.  It says that you can’t really believe in trade unions if you disagree with the senior individuals who run them.

The real flaw with the argument is that it assumes the vast majority of the membership actually do agree with the behaviour and policies of the leaders and officials. But a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft in July found that, when given a choice, just 16% of Unite members believed that Len McCluskey best represented the things they cared about.

I suggest the reason why the overwhelming majority of members don’t think he represents them is not because he isn’t socialist enough, but because he spends too long fighting his personal ideological crusades and not enough time listening to what his members want.

He has openly demanded a reversal of the benefits cap of £26,000 a year. But according to the Ashcroft poll, 86% of Unite members agree with such a cap.

He has called for the voting age to be reduced to 16, but 72% of his members disagree.

He has called for mass strikes and civil disobedience – but 57% disagree.  54% even disagree with his call for a 75p tax rate.

It begs the question, just who is it who is betraying the membership?  And does Len McCluskey genuinely represent the Unite membership when so few members agree with him?

Which leads me to the second argument.

2) “Trade Unions are the most democratic organisations in the world”

Really? It is true in the sense that members are balloted regularly. But remember that McCluskey himself was elected on a turnout of just 15%, which means less than 10% of the membership voted him into office. True democracy is not just about ballot papers, it’s about inspiring people to take part in the process.  The fact that the overwhelming majority of the Unite membership take no part whatsoever indicates not just a democratic deficit, but a disease at the heart of the organisation that acts as a barrier to their claims of representation.

Billy Connolly once said “don’t vote, it just encourages them.”  I disagree.  Mass abstention encourages the Union establishment to maintain the status quo – and the status quo serves the Union establishment just fine, allowing them to claim democratic mandate whilst driving their own personal agendas.

86% of Unite members do not feel McCLuskeyite politics best represents their views, and 85% did not vote in the general secretary election. Maybe these numbers are too close to be a coincidence.

The moderate majority of members are the only ones who can save Unite from itself – but they have long been silent, and show no signs of finding their voice.

I leave in sadness rather than anger.  I wish Unite was, well, nicer.  I wish it wasn’t so antagonistic.  I wish it stood up for working people in a way that was productive through respectful negotiation and collaboration, not threats and political deviance. But it just isn’t going to happen.

The arguments to stay in membership – the solidarity and friendship, the belief in building a better society, the standing up for ordinary people – are all arguments for trade unionism as it should be, but they simply do not reflect the reality of how Unite actually behaves.

My membership of an organisation that behaves in such a depressing, devious and combative way reflects badly upon me as a person. I don’t like the idea that my friends and family might see the way Unite behaves and think I find it acceptable. I don’t. If the moderate majority of Unite members cannot find a voice from within, then maybe they should join me in searching for a better trade union to join.

Jonathan Roberts was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Thirsk and Malton at the last election

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64 Responses to “Why I’ve left Unite”

  1. paul barker says:

    Ive just skimmed most of the comments & its clear there is no basis for agreement. Why not try for a reasonable Divorce? As it is things could get very nasty indeed with both sides reduced to simply trying to hurt the other. What is the point?

  2. Harry Steel says:

    “Harry steel you want people to leave labour like the SDP did, remind me how well did labour do in 1983? oh yes 27%’”

    I suspect you now John that that result was as a result of a combination of factors – not least of which was the popularity endowed on Thatcher by the Falklands victory and the press treatment of poor old Michael Foot. But, undoubtedly, the SDP defection condemed Labour to years of opposition.

    I’m not so sure, something similar now with the departure of a few disgruntled right-wing careereists annoyed at Unite woud have the same resonance with the public at large. So what? most would feel. And, indeed why can’t they be honest and join the Lib Dems – the unions are at our core and will remain so, I hope for the foreseeable future. Good riddance I say.

    I’m proud to be a card-carrying member of Unite AND the Labour Party.

    Henrik has a point though too – its all a bit silly that we’ve let this saga grind on- and whose fault is that? Miliband of course, trying to look tough. Last time I looked Unite was exhonerated over so-called electoral irreglarities. So lets put this to bed.

  3. Robert says:

    Just to clarify for Rob Marchant, Unite did a very bad job of negotiating for its members in Grangemouth. That is a reason for getting involved and not leaving.

    It occurs to me that I stayed in the Labour Party despite a war. Jonathan leaves Unite because of an inflatable rat! Nobody has died as far as I know in Falkirk due to Unite!

  4. Robert says:

    Paul, the point is that a Labour Party without links to the trade unions would not be a labour party. The common sense of trade unionists has often helped the Labour Party to avoid the silliness of middle class ideologues of the right and left.

  5. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Harry Steel

    “Exhonerated” .

    Latest news says the woman who’s evidence was supposed to have been withdrawn, now says no evidence was withdrawn by her and nobody sought any permission to do so.

    Calls now for Miliband to publish the report and re-open the investigation.

    Not over by a long way.

  6. John reid says:

    Harry steel ,you’re assuming that A Had those members of the DP left, that the millions of labour voters or swing voters who may have voted Labour had Healey been leader, would have still stayed with Labour had the SDP not existed, they’d have voted Liberal or voted Tory,
    the idea the alliance split the anti tory vote, That’s assuming that everyone who voted SDP/Liberal aliance,had they not done that, they’d have voted Labour, look at Eric brown, George Brown ,David Owen, Chirrs Broklebank. John Normington, Rosie Barnes, John Turhso Cyril Smith, David Alton, Danny Finklestien,paul Staines ,Chris Crayling, Andrew Hunter, Mark Cooper, Andrew Cooper, Mark hunter, Andrew Mitchell, all of those second choice was Tory as was opinion poll after opinion polls that found two thirds of Alliance voters ,would have voted Tory too,

    Regarding your view of the unions, it reminds me of a union leader who took to the Labour stage at the 92 conference,and said this is the forth election we’ve funded labour, this is the forth election we’ve told them what policies to have, and this is the forth election we’ve lost,I think we’re backing the wrong horse , without bothering to spend a seconds thought that it was the policies that the unions told Labour to have at those election was the reason we lost,

  7. John reid says:

    Robert would the only reason to leave a union be because someone died, I take it you left the NUm after David Wilkie died in the miners strike then?

  8. steve says:

    @ Harry Steel “I’m not so sure … the departure of a few disgruntled right-wing careereists … would have the same resonance”

    Indeed. It’s not as if they can flounce off and join the LibDems who’ve sunk below UKIP in the polls – not many career opportunities for them there.

    If they don’t achieve their desired reforms at the Spring Conference they’ll probably replicate the sort of campaign they initiated against Ken Livingstone with Ed Miliband as the target: “I can’t, with a clear conscience, vote for a Party led by a man so closely associated with a discredited trade union leader. The only way to save the party I love is to abstain.” etc. etc. It’ll be pompous mock-righteousness -a-go-go. And they’ll receive prominent coverage in the Murdoch media.

    They’ll then fight it out if Ed loses or look for an alternative career if Ed wins.

  9. John reid says:

    Steve, fair point,but the liberals only got 13.8% in 1979′ and were on 10.8% in the polls December 1980

    Both Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins were both just thinking of joining the liberals before the SDP formed, as far back as 1977′ both were against the closed shop,

  10. Robert says:

    John Reid, I am just making the point that Blairites are getting their knickers in a twist about relatively minor incidents, which do not compare with invading a country.

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    Its clear enough that Jonathan’s allegiance was to the Blairite version of New Labour and his political instincts are largely opposed to Labour as it is today.

    He’s left UNITE. Its obvious enough what his next step should, and will be.

  12. GSilver says:

    “My membership of an organisation that behaves in such a depressing, devious and combative way reflects badly upon me as a person. I don’t like the idea that my friends and family might see the way Unite behaves and think I find it acceptable. I don’t. If the moderate majority of Unite members cannot find a voice from within, then maybe they should join me in searching for a better trade union to join.”

    This is exactly what I find and how I feel about unite. unite is no longer a trade union protecting its members interests, its a vehicle so McCluskey can be a ‘big man’. I get bombarded with demand to take strike action, to be confrontational BUT when I ask the local rep anything at all I’m either fobbed off with the most pathetic replies or simply told “we know best”.
    frankly unite is sickening me to the trade union movement which increasingly treats its members as poker chips in a power struggle rather than people with lives, mortgages and commitments.

  13. johnd2008 says:

    Nothing much has changed. I was a member of the AEU in the early 70s, at the time of Heath’s Government. We were told, not asked,or balloted to strike against the union legislation going through Parliament. When I objected about being dictated to by the leadership, I was warned in no uncertain terms that any work I sent into our workshops would be blacked. I was fortunate enough to find a better job very quickly and left the union never to return. I notice that it is standard practice to attack anyone who disagrees with laid down policy no matter how stupid or destructive it may be.

  14. Hoover says:

    I’m pleased to see we still have fellows in the comment thread blaming Thatcher.

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