FBU and ASLEF set to vote on disaffiliating from Labour Party over issues with Keir Starmer’s leadership

Photos: LEFT: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images, RIGHT: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Members of the Fire Brigades Union have expressed concerns about the party’s direction under Keir Starmer’s leadership

Two trade unions are set to vote on cutting ties with the Party at their respective conferences in the coming days, amid a growing rift between Labour under Sir Keir Starmer and the trade union movement.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and ASLEF, which represents train drivers, are both set to vote on disaffiliation from Labour.

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Why is the FBU voting on disaffiliation from Labour?

The Labour Party could be hit with a significant setback as two of its union partners could vote to cut ties with the Party.

A motion put forward by the Merseyside FBU branch will be put to the union’s conference today (13 May).

The motion states that the FBU should cut ties with Labour as the party has “seemingly attempted to purge itself of socialists, actively distance itself from working men and women and sought to align itself with big business”.

The resolution states: “Conference is no longer convinced that the aims and objectives of the Labour Party reflect those of the FBU. With this in mind the conference demands the FBU disaffiliate from the Labour Party nationally with immediate effect.”

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A Labour source said that Keir Starmer’s decision to engage with the Sun newspaper had likely also contributed to the decision to launch the disaffiliation motion.

In a statement issued ahead of the conference, the FBU’s executive council said: “The FBU has made no secret of our disagreements with the current Labour leadership over a plethora of matters including the rowing back on radical policies; the Bakers Union disaffiliation, unjust suspensions and expulsions; pandering to the rightwing media, allowing a Tory MP into the party and the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn.”

“Affiliation does not mean endorsing every Labour policy but we must continue to engage in these structures if we are to give firefighters a voice in Westminster.”

The vote is due to take place today (13 May) and is expected to be relatively close.

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The FBU is considered to be a left-wing union, having backed candidates on the left of the party in internal elections and actively campaigned for policies such as the Green New Deal.

This could see members vote with their feet over concerns that the party has moved to the right under Starmer and, crucially, is failing to maintain strong links with the union movement.

However, a number of views are represented within the union, including a significant number who may back the motion because they feel the FBU should be apolitical.

A union source told NationalWorld that “there is a sizable number of members who believe we should not be affiliated to any political party” and the issue divides the membership.

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The source said they believed the motion was being driven “by the antipathy of some officials to the Starmer leadership rather than any pressure they are getting from rank and file members”.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said it “makes sense for unions to be fighting for ideas that will make workers’ lives better inside a party rooted in worker representation.”

Why is train drivers union ASLEF set to vote on disaffiliation?

Another union with historic links to Labour will debate and then vote on disaffiliation next week.

Around 80 delegates of the ASLEF union will come together for a conference in Bournemouth from Monday (16 May).

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One of the motions up for debate will be on disaffiliation from Labour, with the result of the vote expected late Monday or possibly the following day.

A motion to remain affiliated to Labour was carried at last year’s ASLEF conference by 55 votes to 25.

Union sources suggest that while the leadership may not be entirely satisfied with the direction of the party under Starmer, there is a feeling that working within the Party will always be better for members.

The union’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, told NationalWorld: “ASLEF is a democracy and this is a matter for our members, and our delegates will decide one way or another next week.”

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The ASLEF boss has generally remained more neutral than a number of union leaders who have publicly criticised aspects of Keir Starmer’s leadership, or even threatened to withdraw funding.

However, after Labour peer Lord Mandelson who is reportedly a key adviser to the Labour leadership said in an interview that, “hard left factions attached to trade unions have got to go,” Mr Whelan wrote to the Labour leader.

In the letter, Mr Whelan said the comments, “have caused considerable concern and anger”.

He wrote: “The path to unity does not lie through any moves to reduce the union link, and the path to winning the country cannot lie through the party distancing itself from the collective voice of millions of working people.

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“I would ask that you say something publicly, in short order, to make it clear that you reject these comments, and that there will be no attempts to break, or water down, the union link. The union link is one of our most effective tools for re-engaging with working people who have turned from us. It is not an obstacle.”

Although the motion has been motivated primarily by opposition to Labour’s new direction under Starmer, there are a number of different reasons why some delegates may support it.

There are ASLEF members who believe the union should not be affiliated to any party, while some would prefer it to forge closer ties with the other parties, particularly the SNP.

While much of the union’s left-wing membership may have some doubts over Starmer’s leadership, many will likely still back ASLEF’s historic links with the party.

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One source likened the decision to eurosceptics deciding to vote ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum.

They said: “Lots of people who didn’t particularly like the EU nonetheless looked at that vote and thought it would be better to be in the tent and trying to make changes than outside of it, and it may be that members make a similar decision here”.

What is the link between the Labour Party and trade unions?

As a party which was built out of the trade union movement, Labour has generally maintained a strong relationship with trade unions through affiliation.

There are currently 11 trade unions affiliated with the party, which provide Labour with funding and resources.

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The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union (BFAWU) voted to disaffiliate from Labour at party conference last year.

Of the three largest unions, Unison, Unite and GMB, both Unite and GMB have threatened to cut ties with the party, with GMB already cutting funding from Labour in London over a dispute.

Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham has warned that it could cut funding from the party over a dispute between Coventry City Council and Unite refuse workers who are currently on strike over a pay offer.

The Labour Party declined to comment.

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