One of Britain’s biggest trade unions has launched an investigation after its general secretary suddenly resigned amid allegations about his personal conduct.
Tim Roache, who has led the GMB union for the past five years, took sick leave on Monday and then abruptly quit on Tuesday night.
The 600,000-member union, whose donations and influence play a key role in Labour party politics, revealed that Roache had suffered from ME for years and decided he “does not feel mentally or physically able to continue to lead our union.”
But it also revealed the union had received an anonymous letter last week in which “a number of allegations have been made about Tim’s conduct whilst he held the office of general secretary”.
“An investigation has been launched and it is not appropriate to comment further pending the outcome of that investigation,” the union said in a statement issued after an emergency meeting of its finance and general purposes committee.
“Complaints which are brought to our attention will be dealt with appropriately in line with our policies and procedures and with appropriate regard to fairness and sensitivity.”
Wales and South West regional secretary John Phillips will become acting general secretary with immediate effect, until a permanent replacement is elected in due course.
However, Roache’s dramatic departure - just months after he was re-elected for a fresh term in office - has sparked a fresh bout of bitter internal warfare within the union movement and the Labour party.
Allies of Lisa Johnson, the GMB’s director of external relations, have told HuffPost UK that the anonymous letter sent to party president Barbara Plant last Wednesday appeared to be deliberately aimed at implicating her in the controversy.
Johnson is seen as a lead contender to become Labour’s next general secretary under Keir Starmer, should current party chief Jennie Formby step aside as expected in coming months.
Although Johnson has worked closely with Roache throughout his tenure, it is understood that she had confronted the union boss about his conduct. “Lisa has acted with great courage, integrity and decency throughout this,” one ally said.
Another figure in the labour movement said that it was no secret that Johnson had some critics both on the Left and among some centrists, but stressed she was respected by most union officials and many Labour MPs. Around 80 MPs are sponsored by the GMB.
The anonymous letter, which included misspellings of Labour party figures’ names, made unspecified allegations about Roache without naming those who it claimed had suffered from his misconduct.
The claims included separate allegations of differing kinds of impropriety.
None of the allegations have ever been referred to the police or any other authorities external to the union.
Roache has repeatedly strongly denied any wrongdoing when directly questioned about the claims. But it is understood that he agreed to step aside after discussions with senior figures within the union this week.
Johnson is seen by some Labour MPs and other unions as responsible for directing the GMB’s approach to votes on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), where it has two representatives.
Some members of the NEC believe the GMB has too frequently backed Len McCluskey’s Unite in key votes.
One party source questioned why Roache would have pushed for another term, when the union decided to hold an early general secretary election last November, if he was too ill to remain in post.
Roache upset some on the Left when his union backed Owen Smith’s leadership campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. The union backed Lisa Nandy in the recent leadership election.
The Labour party staff branch of the GMB was highly critical of a recent leak of an internal report into anti-Semitism, demanding protection for those named within it.
In answer to claims that his union was targeting Formby, he tweeted this month: “The GMB is NOT going for Jennie. FACT.”
Unison’s Emilie Oldknow, another possible contender for the general secretary post, saw her chances all but disappear in recent weeks after the leak of her private WhatsApp messages ridiculing Jeremy Corbyn when she was a senior party official.
Keir Starmer’s office refused to comment in detail on the resignation earlier on Wednesday. Asked if the Labour leader views Roache as a ‘friend’, his spokesman said “Keir and Tim are colleagues and have worked together.
“Anything further I will direct you to the GMB. Tim resigned yesterday, Keir has seen his statement.”
The GMB said that Roache had been diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) some years ago “which has previously resulted in two years’ sickness absence from work”.
“Having been signed off by medical professionals earlier this week, Tim was advised to refrain completely from work – and has now taken the difficult decision to stand down from the role permanently, indicating that he does not feel mentally or physically able to continue to lead our union,” it said.
Among the likely contenders to succeed Roache are union officials Gary Smith and Warren Kenny, both of whom are seen as very supportive of Starmer.
Roache defeated centrist candidate Kathy Walker-Shaw, who had been initially kept off the ballot but was reinstated following an internal party row, when he won 61% of members votes last year.