Could the new GMB general secretary really cut funding to Labour?

Sienna Rodgers

The new GMB general secretary, Gary Smith, has revealed that donations from his trade union to Labour will be reviewed. “Bluntly it is Keir Starmer’s problem to sort out the Labour Party, not ours,” he told the Daily Record. “We’ve got to face in to the fact that a lot of our members don’t vote Labour across the UK. We also need to face in to the fact that we organise in Ireland, where Labour doesn’t stand candidates. The union’s politics is going to have to reflect that reality.” He said GMB will need to have “an honest conversation” with Labour about “funding and support”.

The timing of his comments comes at the worst time for Keir Starmer, who is already under pressure with a possible Batley and Spen by-election defeat and leadership challenge on the cards. But they do not come as a shock. Days after he was elected as the union’s new leader last month with over 50% of the vote, Smith declared to the GMB conference: “When we exclude retired members, we have around 480,000 paying members in the union. That is the lowest level of financial membership in living memory. Our focus over the past five years, I have to tell you, has too often been wrong. We moved away from our focus on industrial campaigning and our organising policy GMB at work.”

Smith continued: “We will recover and we will restore our union, and with it our finances. But it will mean us refocusing and properly prioritising campaigning and building the union. I will be working with the CEC to examine everything we spend, challenge it and cut it if it doesn’t fit with our priorities.” While “we cannot cut our way out of the challenges we face”, he told the GMB in June, “I do give notice that our spending on politics, like everything else, will be subject to overall budget review. There will be no blank cheques to political parties or politicians. I want our CEC [the executive council] to consider carrying out impact assessments before we make commitments on political spending.”

Some say Smith must be bluffing. After all, his general secretary bid was backed by key figures in the Labour leader’s office and his victory was celebrated by Starmer supporters. But LabourList GMB sources say this is no bluff: that he is genuinely indifferent towards Labour and does not prioritise maintaining a close relationship with the party, even if it means losing seats on its national executive committee.

Why? Asked by the Daily Record whether he thought the GMB got bang for buck with its donations, Smith replied: “Definitely not.” And, being Edinburgh-born and a former GMB Scotland secretary, he is keenly aware of the many GMB members who do not back Labour. This prompts the question of why the union should behave as if its members do overwhelmingly support the party. There are even rumours – unconfirmed – that he wants to be able to expand GMB’s ability to support other political parties.

All else unchanged, Smith’s stance on funding does not mean he will alter the GMB’s position on the Labour leadership, which is broadly supportive. However, this development is undoubtedly bad news for Starmer. Labour’s financial position is poor and its legal woes are far from over. The leader needs to attract high-net-worth individuals to compensate for reduced union and member donations, and for that he needs signs of improvement in the party’s electoral chances – another reason the leadership will be praying for a Labour hold in Batley and Spen.

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