Britain: civil war in the labour movement

Battles are breaking out across the labour movement, with Starmer purging socialists from the party, and the Unison bureaucracy sabotaging the union’s left-wing NEC. The left must make a stand and clear out these agents of the establishment.

“The labour movement is in the middle of a civil war.” This comment, made by one prominent trade union activist recently, accurately sums up the current situation.

The movement is in turmoil. It is being convulsed by a series of unprecedented shocks and struggles – a reflection of the subterranean moods of discontent that are exploding to the surface. 

Added to the mix are the attempts by the establishment to stem the left-wing tide.

Without doubt, we are in a period of sharp and sudden changes.


First and foremost are the shock election victories for the left in Unite and Unison – the two largest trade unions in Britain. These developments represent an earthquake that has shaken the whole labour movement.

Parallel with this, in the wake of the defeat of the Corbyn movement, we are witnessing an unfolding civil war within the Labour Party, with the right wing attempting to reassert their dominance.

This is provoking a backlash. The bakers’ union (BFAWU), for example, is considering disaffiliating from the party, in response to the threatened expulsion of their president, Ian Hodson.


Sharon Graham Image Socialist AppealThe victory of Sharon Graham in the Unite general secretary election shows not only the strength of the left, but the dissatisfaction amongst grassroots members even with the previous ‘left’ leadership in the union / Image: Socialist Appeal

The victory of Sharon Graham in the Unite general secretary election came as a complete surprise to many. The ‘official’ broad left candidate, Steve Turner, was pushed into second place. This victory shows the dissatisfaction amongst grassroots members even with the previous ‘left’ leadership in the union.

The right-wing candidate in the Unite contest, Gerard Coyne, was humiliated. He came third, losing 20,000 votes compared to 2017. In contrast, the left candidates won more than two-thirds of the vote – a clear indication of the real balance of forces within the union.

In this election, Sharon Graham was seen as the underdog; the ‘insurgency candidate’. Her campaign promised radical change, and a return to militancy on the shop floor.

Graham pledged to turn her back on Westminster politics. This understandably chimed with many members, who are disgusted with the Starmer leadership in the Labour Party. 

Her victory reflects disillusionment with the ‘business as usual’ policies of the United Left, which has dominated the union since it was created.

Graham’s victory represents a break from this approach. It reflects a massive shakeup in the union, and reflects the discontent in the rank and file, which has been building up over years. 

The new Unite leader, however, will now be under pressure to deliver on her promises.


Likewise, the stunning victory of the left in Unison has turned things upside down.

Unison was the bastion of the right wing in the trade union movement. It was always relied upon by the ruling class to hold the line for them, and sellout the workers in any potential struggle.

This was graphically illustrated in the 2011 pensions’ dispute, where the potential for united action across the public sector was undermined by former general secretary Dave Prentis and the rest of the Unison leadership.

The success of the left group, #TimeForRealChange, in winning a big majority in the recent Unison NEC elections, represented a stunning turnaround.

The left candidate, Paul Holmes, would have won the earlier election for general secretary, but was robbed by the vote-splitting sectarianism of the Socialist Party and the sham ‘left’ campaign of Roger MacKenzie, an assistant general secretary, who subsequently left the union for a better career elsewhere.


But the new left-wing Unison NEC is now faced with a campaign of sabotage by the union bureaucracy, who are determined to hold onto their privileged positions. And behind these right-wing officials stands the establishment, who are out to destroy the left leadership.

The ruling class cannot afford to allow this important union to fall into the hands of the left, and through them, the membership. They have therefore launched a civil war in the union to crush the left – starting with Paul Holmes, the suspended President of Unison. 

Scandalously, the Unison bureaucracy has colluded with Paul’s employers – a so-called Labour council – to get him sacked.

These bureaucrats are deliberately blocking every move by the left to represent the members. They have even organised secret meetings of national officials, with a view to ousting the left leadership within two years.

These renegade officials must be stopped in their tracks and shown the door. It is up to the left to take up this life-or-death challenge, and decisively defeat this right-wing coup.

They must fight fire with fire. They cannot afford to make the same mistake as Corbyn and the leaders of the Labour left.


The same top bureaucrats in Unison were seconded to work for the Labour Party machine under Corbyn, where they were instrumental in stabbing him in the back. Their sabotaging antics were in part responsible for the party’s losses in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. They are traitors and should be treated as such.

Their actions directly prepared the way for Corbyn’s defeats, and subsequently for the victory of ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer and the right wing.

Starmer is a mouthpiece of the capitalist establishment. Labour’s right wing are careerist infiltrators who are there to protect and represent the interests of big business. They are the agents of the ruling class – a Fifth Column – who are out to destroy the left and the party as we know it.

They have therefore suspended Corbyn, with a view to removing him as an MP. And they have suspended individuals – and even whole local parties – who have dared to speak out.

Most recently, they have expelled renowned left-wing film director Ken Loach, BFAWU president Ian Hodson, and others on trumped up charges.

These ‘auto-exclusions’ come on the back of the proscription of Socialist Appeal and three other organisations – a prelude to the banning of all left groups within the party.


This is a witch-hunt – instigated by the establishment – to drive out and demoralise the membership.

As a result, over 120,000 activists have already left the party, and the bakers’ union is threatening to disaffiliate. Starmer and the right wing are on the road to destroying the entire party. 

This civil war is unfortunately largely one-sided. The Labour left should be throwing everything into this fight, but they are frightened to do so. They naively believe that if they keep quiet, everything will return to normal.

But they are sadly mistaken. The right wing sees this timidity by the left – and this weakness only encourages Starmer and the right to go further.

The left – including the left-wing trade unions – needs to make a clear stand.


The whole labour movement is in a state of turmoil. This is a reflection of the crisis of capitalism, and the mood of discontent and anger bubbling away in society – especially in the working class.

The Labour right wing think that they have the upper hand. But given capitalism’s deep crisis, which is growing more acute everyday, they will be shattered by events.

They offer nothing to workers, the youth, and the oppressed. They are faithful representatives of the ruling class, and they act accordingly. But this will be their downfall.

The working-class movement will need to rearm itself. Half-measures are no good. The right wing will need to be cleared out – lock, stock and barrel.

A new militant leadership is required: one that will not compromise; that is prepared to go to the end; that will organise to overthrow capitalism, and not bend the knee.

That is the challenge facing the working class, in Britain and internationally. It is a challenge in which the forces of Marxism will play a crucial role.

Originally published 14 Sept at |

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.