Elected leader of the union – one of Labour’s biggest financial backers – on a vow to take the union “back to the workplace”, Sharon Graham insisted the move was not a “snub” towards Sir Keir Starmer.
According to the BBC, Ms Graham, who succeeded Len McCluskey last month, is the first Unite general secretary not to attend the party’s annual conference, stressing she’ll instead be with members.
“At this time, my place is with workers and my members. So next week I’ll be on picket lines where my members are taking industrial action and not a Labour conference in Brighton.”
“We shouldn’t always do what we have always done just because we have always done it,” she told the broadcaster.
“I am days into my leadership,” she added. “We currently have 16 industrial disputes going on, from Tesco drivers to Weetabix to locksmiths in Scunthorpe and Wolverhampton. What I need is to be with those workers in dispute and personally take leadership”.
Ms Graham insisted the move was “definitely not a snub” to the Labour leader, but rather a “priority decision” and told the BBC she had a “cordial” conversation with Sir Keir Starmer.
“I had a useful meeting with Keir earlier this week and told him it was unlikely I would be at conference,” she said.
While describing proposed controversial changes to the election of future leader of Labour – outlined by Sir Keir – as “white noise” to Unite members, she criticised the move earlier this week in a letter to MPs.
Ms Graham said the proposals to ditch the ‘one member one vote’ system introduced by Ed Miliband in 2014 and reverting back to the electoral college was “deeply disturbing”.
“Unite believes in democracy and this proposal to reduce the entire membership to one third of the vote, while inflating the vote of Labour MPs to one third, is unfair, undemocratic and a backwards step for our party,” she said. “Our membership, the lifeblood of our party and many of whom are committed trade unionists, must be respected.”
The Unite leader said it was “vital” MPs publicly made clear they do not support the proposal, which the left-wing group Momentum suggested would also mark the start of a “civil war” within the party if Sir Keir took the rule changes to conference.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, expressed his frustration with the proposed rule changes, saying it was a “huge mistake”.
“Look at the contrast there’s going to be in the media. You have Boris Johnson strutting the world stage doing deals with Biden and other world leaders – trying to prepare for Cop – and what do we have? The Labour leader in grubby stitch-up deals trying to bounce his own conference.”
Pressed on his comments, the senior MP said: “I’m saying what he’s opening himself up to are those charges. Only 18 months ago he was elected leader, he never said this to the members that elected him that he was going to bring forward these proposals.
“I’m warning him you’re opening yourself up to these charges, for goodness sake do the right thing which is don’t try and bounce this through conference, have a proper discussion, a proper consultation and allow the members then to decide.”
The Unite delegation at Labour conference will be led by its executive council chairman, Tony Woodhouse and national political lead, Rob MacGregor.
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