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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Gary Smith interview: 'I think the public are on our side and not on the side of the politicians'

GMB's general secretary Gary Smith (PA Images / Alamy)

9 min read

With industrial action back in vogue, GMB general secretary Gary Smith sees ‘a thousand fires lit’ in workplaces across the country – and tells Tali Fraser he’s not waiting for politicians to secure change

"Politics is lagging behind economics and is lagging behind public opinion. None of the party leaders are ahead of it.” So declares the GMB’s Gary Smith as he heads into his second Labour Party Conference as general secretary of the country’s third biggest trade union.

Smith, 55, has been leader of the union for just over a year of its 122-year affiliation with Labour, but he wants to make it clear he will treat the party like any other employer, judging it on whether ordinary people are being listened to or not.

His assessment so far? “The left in general has not been good at listening to people.” Whether it be his members who work in retail, care services, health, refuse or distribution, Smith believes their interests have fallen under a political shadow.

“This is the hidden army of people who we depended on during the pandemic, people who actually keep the country and the economy going, yet who seldom get the respect that they deserve,” he says. “They are standing up and saying that they have had enough of their standard of living being attacked – and I think we have a thousand fires lit in workplaces across the country.”

Smith has been a union man since joining the GMB at 16 as an apprentice gas worker. His father, an electrician, was part of what was then the Electrical Trades Union. He says: “It was just what was done. You started and joined the union.”

Brought up in Edinburgh, the political and economic context of his youth continues to shape his politics. “The Thatcher period was really beginning to bite in Scotland,” Smith says. “There was industrial unrest, economic and social upheaval, and where I grew up was hit by mass unemployment, cheap heroin and then the HIV epidemic.”

We meet at the GMB offices near Euston Station; as Smith still lives in Scotland – and has no plans ever to move to London – he is constantly travelling for work. Newly appointed Prime Minister Liz Truss once lived in the town he has made his home, Paisley. “Maybe we do have something in common,” he jokes. “Trade union leaders do not pick prime ministers but, of course, I would be open to meeting her. We have to deal with whoever is in front of us.”

Despite Truss’s enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher during the Conservative leadership election, Smith believes we are witnessing the last vestiges of the Thatcher project coming apart. “We’ve got sewage on the beaches from privatised water utilities. The systems of regulation around water and energy have absolutely collapsed,” he says. “There is an old era ending at the moment, and what is not clear is what the new era is going to look like.”

Whatever that may be, for Smith the answer does not lie with politicians. “There are no political saviours. We are not relying on politicians; they are playing catch-up with the public.”

Take the GMB’s campaign for a rise in the living wage to £15 per hour. The move is supported by all the major trade unions but not Labour. Before he was party leader, Keir Starmer was photographed in 2019 “showing solidarity” with McDonald’s workers campaigning for the wage increase. He was even filmed at a London protest saying: “I’m really pleased to be here this morning supporting the staff at McDonald’s, and they’re not asking for the Earth, they’re asking for the basics – £15 an hour.” Since becoming leader in 2020, however, there has not just been silence from Starmer: shadow cabinet members were said to have been told to argue against the pay rise at Labour’s 2021 Conference, prompting the resignation of left-winger Andy McDonald as employment rights secretary.

The GMB is one of the party’s biggest donors – yet it does not receive backing for one of its major policies. Does Smith believe he is being heard by Labour? “Anybody who is not supporting £15 per hour is just behind the economics on this; £10 per hour is simply not going to cut in in the world we are facing,” he says. “But there are no political saviours. I think the public are on our side and not on the side of the politicians who are standing in the way of making progress.” 

Before Truss announced plans to freeze the energy bill cap at £2,500 a year from October, there had been concern from the GMB that low-paid energy workers would themselves struggle to meet their bills. Smith has criticisms across the energy sector: Ofgem created “a Ponzi scheme”; the energy crisis was “made in Whitehall”; and politicians are stuck in “groupthink”.

His main targets are those promising a move to 100 per cent renewables, which he claims is a fallacy. Smith says: “There is dishonesty around the whole energy policy… and politicians are just not willing to face the extent of this crisis.

“The renewable infrastructure is all manufactured abroad; it is hugely vulnerable… Frankly, politicians are far too cosy to the renewables industry and there is a far too cosy middle-class consensus – and the chickens have now come home to roost.”

Has the response from Labour been sufficient? “Absolutely not,” he says. “It just does not cut it, and suggests there are senior people in the party who have not grasped the scale of this crisis.” Smith rattles off the statistics: by 2030, every nuclear power station in the United Kingdom, bar one, is set to be offline; the use of coal power will end by October 2024; and we have seen the biggest bailout since RBS with Bulb energy.

What Smith would like is a recognition that dependence on energy imports, failure to develop nuclear and the loss of national generating capacity will see bills continue to rise – and for someone to do something about it. “This is not just about the war in Ukraine. The utter neglect around energy and failure to recognise the broken market has got us into this mess.”

I am sick of dealing with politicians who want power without responsibility

He credits shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves for her talk of investing billions in energy, including green jobs, and Starmer for getting the importance of hydrogen and nuclear – and for pushing early to freeze the energy cap. But, he adds: “I think Labour could have and should have been far more assertive on energy. And if Labour had listened to energy workers, they would have been far further ahead of the Tories on this.” The GMB will be bringing the issue to conference alongside the £15 an hour campaign and a special focus on gender discrimination in the workplace.

The union was dealt a blow in that regard after an independent investigation chaired by Karon Monaghan QC found the GMB to be institutionally sexist, with endemic bullying and harassment. “It was the most painful period in the history of the union,” Smith says. “There is no question the union was institutionally sexist.” Although the GMB now has more female regional secretaries than ever before, at 40 per cent, Smith admits there is work still to be done.

The union recently set up a Women’s Campaign Unit, led by Scotland regional organiser Rhea Wolfson, to focus on external issues while looking internally too at development of female employees in the union, promotions and leadership. There is also a taskforce to work on new policies around sexual harassment and relationships at work. 

“Pay justice is going to be a big theme for us at Conference,” Smith says. “All these decades after the Equal Pay Act, [introduced by former Labour employment secretary] Barbara Castle, we still have massive discrimination going on in the public and private sector,” Smith says. And his eyes are firmly set on a Labour council: Birmingham City.

The GMB believes the council’s job evaluation scheme undervalues the work of those in jobs largely done by women, like cleaners, catering staff and teaching assistants. The union had called on council leader Ian Ward to urgently intervene in pay disputes and are now balloting for strike action. Ward insists the council and the GMB must resolve the matter as soon as possible. Smith accuses him of blaming the problem on his officials. Perhaps indicative of his wider views, the GMB general secretary says: “I am sick of dealing with politicians who want power without responsibility.”

The general secretary was also an outspoken critic of the handling of anti-Semitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, when, he says, the party “became a refuge for middle-class racists”.

He adds: “The response to the Jewish community raising concerns about anti-Semitism, the fact that was not taken seriously and tackled, is a stain on the Labour Party.” Last month, at an emotional event, the GMB launched a Jewish Faith Workers’ Branch with around 15 rabbis, unveiling a banner with one side written in English and the other in Yiddish to celebrate workers united in struggle.

While Smith believes Starmer has been proactive on anti-Semitism, he views the leadership’s policy on a different internal conflict – whether MPs should appear on the picket lines that have sprung up as a summer of strikes turns to an autumn of discontent – as leaving a lot to be desired. The Labour leader issued a warning to his shadow cabinet during the RMT’s rail strike in July to stay away; shadow transport minister Sam Tarry was subsequently sacked after turning up to a picket line at Euston station. Smith says: “It became a self-inflicted wound for the Labour Party.”

One of Smith’s fellow trade union general secretaries, Mick Lynch of the RMT, has become highly visible during the strikes, bringing both new admirers and critics. “Mick deserves great credit,” Smith says, accusing the media and Conservatives of “looking down their noses at him… you know, ‘how can a working class man stand up and be so articulate?’”.

He worries the focus on general secretaries detracts from the job of the union and helping ordinary people be the ones to take action. “The trade union movement cannot and should not be about leaders.” But leadership is important: the GMB has more than half a million members, and representing them poses a heavy burden on any individual. “It’s a huge honour,” Smith insists. “It is a big responsibility and one that I take seriously, but it is a privilege for somebody like me who spent my whole life in the union.”

As to what comes after Conference, Smith has some historic issues to tackle. “We have a generation of politicians who have presided over an economy which is rooted in low pay and insecurity. If we think the people who are the architects of this crisis were ever going to sort it out, it was never, ever going to happen. No political saviours; no simple political fixes. The job of the trade union and the struggle we are involved in never ends.”

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