The decision of the GMB trade union to support Owen Smith's leadership challenge in the Labour Party has proven controversial among many GMB activists and members, as evidenced by the comments left on the union's social media accounts, and reports of several members resigning. It is therefore worth considering the background, and indeed the wisdom, of the endorsement.
During the Labour leadership campaign in 2015, the GMB made no supporting nomination. Opinion in the union was divided, and neutrality avoided the danger of bringing the fractional atmosphere in the party into the union. There was also a view afloat that the rule changes arising from the Collins review had changed the structure of the party by seeking active engagement with individual union members rather than respecting the collective democracy of the affiliated unions. During the 2010 leadership election just 6.1% of the GMB membership had voted, and thereby indicated alongside their vote that they shared the aims and values of the Labour Party. After the Collins review, 6.1% was arguably a poor mandate for committing the support of the entire union.
The highest sovereign authority in GMB is the annual Congress, where lay member delegates, activists from branches and regions, decide policy. At this June's Congress in Bournemouth, four motions were overwhelmingly passed which explicitly committed the union to supporting Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party, and to oppose those plotting to undermine him. No trade union can prosper if it stands against the material interests of its members, and therefore these motions were qualified with the proviso that GMB will continue to fight for its own policies, particularly in support of the skilled defence jobs associated with the Trident successor programme. These motions did not specifically anticipate the question of a formal leadership challenge.
Certainly the GMB's general secretary, Tim Roache, was joint signatory alongside other union leaders to two open letters calling for unity and an end to the chaos among the parliamentary party, which did reflect the policy passed at Congress. However, once Angela Eagle triggered a formal leadership contest clearly it was felt that Congess policy had been overtaken by events.
A consultative ballot was held of all members, though the Scottish region opted out. Significantly, the ballot did not restrict itself to those GMB members who support the aims and values of the Labour Party, and while Constituency Labour Party nomination meetings have excluded even full party members who had joined after 12 January, the GMB ballot implicitly invited the participation of supporters of parties like the Conservatives, Lib Dems or Ukip.
The ballot paper was accompanied by a letter from the General Secretary asking that GMB members vote with "their heads not their hearts" to decide who could best win the general election, and be next Prime Minister. Many members interpreted this as a nudge to support Owen, but if that was his intention, this arguably underestimates the challenge faced by the party. We have not won a General Election for 11 years, and even between 1997 and 2010 we lost four million votes. The party is marginalized in Scotland, and squeezed between Ukip and the Greens elsewhere. Notwithstanding the advances for working people made under the Blair and Brown governments, the savage judgement of the Chilcot enquiry casts a dark shadow over that era, and too many working people today feel their prospects are precarious, and that they live in a society and an economy that does not work for them, or their families.
Owen Smith, the candidate who promises continuity with the strategy that lost the last two general elections, the strategy that lost Scotland, and who is backed by John McTernan and Alistair Campbell, represents a retreat into a comfort zone for a party habituated to defeat, a party unwilling to adapt to how society has changed since 1997.
The GMB's ballot was contracted to Electoral Reform Services (ERS) which guaranteed the integrity of the voting process, based upon membership data passed to them by GMB. However, electronic votes were sent to those members where the union holds an email address, and postal votes to the others. This proved somewhat problematic, with many members saying they did not receive a ballot paper: bulk email systems are known to have a relatively low rate of response and many email addresses may not be valid, others may go into spam folders, or be rejected. While there is no reason to think that members failing to get a ballot paper would statistically favour either one of the candidates, the background level of dissatisfaction caused by some members failing to get a vote has unfortunately given legs to rumours of entire groups of members assumed to be left-wing not getting ballots.
Out of the 640,000 GMB members only 43,419 voted, about 7% of those eligible. Owen Smith getting 25,969 votes, and Jeremy Cobyn 17450 votes. The margin of victory for Smith is a mere 1.3% of GMB's membership. On such a margin, there is no clear mandate for the union to support either candidate, especially as anecdotal evidence suggests a majority for Corbyn among the lay activists, whereas the consultative ballot addressed the whole membership.
The criteria for judging success for any action by a trade union is whether it results in the organisation being stronger. GMB endorsing Owen Smith is highly unlikely to effect the overall result of the Labour leadership election, where Corbyn is widely expected to win. However, it is a decision that has placed GMB outside the ranks of the other progressive trade unions, and that runs the risk of bringing the current disunity in the Labour Party into the union. In hindsight, the decision of 2015 not to endorse any candidate looks wiser.
Andy Newman a GMB branch secretary and member of the Central Executive CommitteeSuggest a correction