Labour leadership hopefuls court votes of the 'big five' unions

Rajeev Syal
Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Labour leadership hopefuls and their supporters are wooing union executive members as they seek to make the final ballot which will decide who will lead the party.

Representatives of the five remaining candidates – Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Sir Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Jess Phillips – have approached general secretaries as they seek to win 5% of the party’s affiliated membership.

To reach this threshold, each candidate is seeking support from one of the UK’s ‘big five’ unions – Unison, Unite, GMB, the Communication Workers’ Union and Usdaw.

Starmer became the firm favourite to win the leadership race last week when he won the backing of Unison, the UK’s largest union.

Pressure is building on the remaining candidates to find a major union to ensure they make the shortlist from which party members, trade unionists, members of affiliated societies and registered supporters will choose a winner.

Rebecca Long-Bailey


A close ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the Salford MP and shadow business secretary has been groomed as a potential leftwing contender for the top job.

Pitch Promising to champion “progressive patriotism”.



Lisa Nandy


The Wigan MP has built a reputation as a campaigner for her constituency and others like it, many of which have fallen to the Tories. A soft-left candidate, she resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2016 over Corbyn’s leadership and handling of the EU referendum.

Pitch Wants to “bring Labour home” to voters that have abandoned the party in its traditional strongholds.



Jess Phillips


The MP for Birmingham Yardley is a strong media performer who has built up a significant public profile from the backbenches. Her fiery speeches and witty barbs aimed at the Conservatives  frequently go viral online.

Pitch Prepared to argue for Britain to re-enter the European Union and address challenge of bringing back working-class voters.



Keir Starmer


Ambitious former director of public prosecutions has led the charge for remain in the shadow cabinet. He was instrumental in shifting Labour’s position towards backing a second referendum

Pitch Launched his campaign by highlighting how he has stood up for leftwing causes as a campaigning lawyer, and unveiled the slogan “Another Future is Possible”.



Emily Thornberry


The shadow foreign secretary and MP in Islington South and Finsbury, she will have to fight allegations of being part of the “metropolitan elite”.

Pitch Has the political nous and strategic vision to reunite the party, gain the trust of the public, and can take on Johnson in parliament.


The UK’s third biggest union, GMB, will invite all candidates to a 50-strong executive meeting on Tuesday. After a hustings, the executive will decide who to support.

Nandy has been in contact with the union’s general secretary, Tim Roache, and her campaign is run by the MP Louise Haigh who is a firm favourite with the union.

Starmer is still in the running for the GMB vote, sources said, because he is “a safe pair of hands” and is the favourite to win. The union backed Owen Smith in 2016 and was said to have lacked influence under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Fifteen executive members of the shop workers’ union Usdaw will gather in Manchester on Monday afternoon to decide who to support. An eclectic group, they include at least one former Conservative party member and a supporter from Labour’s left.

The moderate union, which backed Smith in 2016, Andy Burnham in 2015 and David Miliband in 2010, is not expected to back Long-Bailey, but could support any of the other candidates, sources said. “This is not a done deal, but we won’t be backing anyone seen as close to Corbyn,” said one source.

The Communication Workers’ Union executive would have been expected to back Long-Bailey. But an element of unpredictability has been introduced to the process by a decision to invite around 500 delegates to make the final decision at a special conference at the end of this month.

Dave Ward, the general secretary and a key Corbyn supporter, has this week written to the candidates asking for their views on the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, re-nationalisation of Royal Mail, whether they support a publicly owned national investment bank and universal broadband, and what their media strategy would be if they won.

Reports have claimed that Unite, the UK’s second biggest union which is most closely associated with Corbyn, will back Long-Bailey. But the general secretary, Len McCluskey, has warned that the decision has not been made and will be decided by the union’s executive council on 24 January.

The contenders will have to gain nominations from at least 33 constituency Labour parties or three affiliates, of which two must be trade unions, representing at least 5% of affiliate membership.

There are only 12 unions affiliated to the Labour party, of which only five are big enough to get a candidate into the next round on their own. Candidates will also have to win the support of a smaller allied union and a socialist society to satisfy party rules.

Nandy’s campaign received a boost on Tuesday when the National Union of Mineworkers backed her as a candidate, the Yorkshire Post reported.

Although membership of the NUM fell with the privatisation of the 15 state-owned coal mines still in operation in 1994, the union has maintained a symbolic role because of the emotional ties between the Labour movement and local communities.

“Former coalfields and towns are crying out for real change. Some of these areas are part of the famous red wall that fell in the last election. I get it. If Labour wants to be part of making that change happen, we have to go back out into our communities and fight for it,” Nandy said.

In a further development, the Corbyn-supporting grassroots group Momentum is facing criticism from some supporters for only offering one option each in a ballot on Labour’s leader and deputy leader.

Forms sent to members invites them to vote either “Yes” or “No” for Long Bailey and her running mate Angela Rayner.

Michael Chessum, a former Momentum executive member, wrote on Twitter: “This is a joke and you should vote No on principle.”