Leader of unions group tells Starmer to publicly disavow Mandelson comments

Sienna Rodgers
© Ian Vogler

Mick Whelan, chair of the group that brings together unions affiliated to the Labour Party, has demanded party unity and vision in a letter to Keir Starmer – and told the Labour leader to disavow recent comments by Peter Mandelson.

Mandelson, the Labour peer and and former MP, said in an interview on Sunday that “hard left factions attached to trade unions have got to go”. It is understood that the New Labour ‘spin doctor’ has been advising the current leadership.

In a letter to Starmer today, the left-wing general secretary of train drivers’ union ASLEF and Labour Unions chair Mick Whelan raised concerns over the comments that he said “have caused considerable concern and anger”.

Whelan told Starmer: “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.

“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.”

The letter also noted that union leaders would like to speak to Starmer about Labour’s vision for the country, and it praised the ‘power in the workplace’ taskforce led by Andy McDonald, who will work with Angela Rayner in her new role.

As Shadow Future of Work Secretary, Labour’s deputy leader intends to focus on “policy delivering good, well-paid jobs in every region and bringing back industry to communities”. The former UNISON rep is expected to work closely with unions.


Update, May 11th: Mandelson has told Politico: “I neither want the union link axed nor all dissent crushed but I do pray for the day when we stop receiving lectures on winning elections from the architects of our 2019 annihilation and their Unite backers.”


Below is the full text of the letter

10 May 2021

Dear Keir

I wanted to write following on from last week’s elections. As trade unions, we want to see Labour winning across the country – and I know unions are, like you, saddened by some of the results and deeply concerned about how the Party turns this situation around so that we can set out a vision of a better future that inspires voters in every community, in every part of the country.

I know you have said many times that the Party is stronger for its connection to working people through the collective voice that the affiliated unions bring to the Party. I hope you will have time to speak to colleagues in the unions about how we can together shape the vision that voters need to hear from Labour, how the Party can set that vision out to the country, and how the trade union movement can play a central role in this.

Union colleagues have been pleased with the work that the Power in the Workplace Taskforce is doing to build a real consensus across affiliates and the Party for the detailed policy agenda on workplace rights and collective rights, building on the work done over recent years. That is important work, and it’s right that we are taking the time to refresh and renew those policies in the light of Covid. However, with the jobs crisis, the epidemic of fire and rehire, and employers using the cover of Covid to drive down pay and conditions – the public need to hear about these issues from the Party, and from you, right now. Issues around decent work, rights and protections, pay, and our plan to create good, unionised jobs must be a core part of Labour’s narrative and vision – without this, we will not be able to win back the trust of the working families who must be at the heart of Labour’s winning coalition.

I have heard you say many times that you want to unite the Party, and it’s clear that unity is essential if we are going to win. As we are all aware, the media feeds on our division and negativity, and the events of this weekend have made Labour division the only story, rather than the Labour wins in Wales and in mayoral races across the country – I know this has caused concern across the movement.

Finally, I need to raise the issue of Peter Mandelson’s comments about trade unions and the trade union link over the weekend. These have caused considerable concern and anger. 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. 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.

It’s crucial to all our members that we can win a Labour government at the next general election. We want to play our part in helping to do that, but it can only happen if we are united and are setting out a bold vision of a better and fairer future, with decent work and good, unionised jobs at its heart.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Mick Whelan
Chair of National TULO

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