New Unite leader skips Labour conference to prioritise work disputes

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<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

The new leader of Unite will miss Labour’s annual conference, saying she needs to prioritise her job of sorting out industrial disputes.

Sharon Graham, who was elected as Unite leader on a promise to take the union “back to the workplace”, is believed to be the first in the job to miss the annual event.

Unite is Labour’s biggest donor, and Graham’s predecessor, Len McCluskey, regularly made pronouncements on politics and was deeply involved in the party.

Her decision to opt out comes as Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, makes a controversial move to change how the leader of the party is elected, taking power away from the membership and going back to splitting it three ways between MPs, trade unions and members.

He is negotiating with unions for their support to make that change, which will only be possible if most of the major unions back him.

In an interview with the BBC, Graham said she had had a “cordial” meeting with Starmer on Monday at which he had not mentioned the possible rule changes.

She said her promise about staying out of Westminster politics “wasn’t just an electoral chant” and said she was “all about action”.

“We shouldn’t always do what we have always done just because we have always done it,” Graham said. “I am days into my leadership – we currently have 16 industrial disputes going on, from Tesco drivers to Weetabix to locksmiths in Scunthorpe and Wolverhampton. What I need to do is be with those workers in dispute and personally take leadership.”

She denied she was snubbing Starmer’s second conference.

“We are in a crisis – workers are going to have a really rough ride. I am showing I am with them, and the Labour party needs to do the same, and show it is with workers and communities too. It’s definitely not a snub – I have made a priority decision,” she said.

Related: Unite will no longer rely on Labour – fighting for our members must come first | Sharon Graham

She said party funding had not be discussed with Starmer and Unite would continue to pay an affiliation fee to Labour, but would want more in return for optional donations.

“For those additional payments, it’d be wrong of us to say there is a blank cheque,” she said. “I have to be able to say, head held high: this money has gone into [opposing] fire and rehire, or this was put in to research and development. It’s about workers’ issues.

“If Labour doesn’t talk about that agenda, people are quite rightly going to question why we are giving those additional funds.”

She said the discussions around rule changes on electing the party leader were like “white noise” to her members.

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