Understanding what was at stake in the GMB election

Submitted by AWL on 13 July, 2021 - 7:58
Gary Smith

This discussion article has been sent to us by a group of GMB activists and officers who have worked with Workers’ Liberty.

Dale Street’s article on the GMB General Secretary election (Solidarity 596) is testament to the author’s outstanding talent for missing the wood for the trees. To paraphrase Eric Morecambe: “He has all the right knowledge, but not necessarily in the right order”.

To help Solidarity readers make sense of the GMB election we want to take a step back from the matters Dale focuses on and instead look at the big picture.

The first point to grasp, is that for anyone in the GMB with an ounce of militant class consciousness it was as plain as day that Gary Smith [pictured above] stood out head and shoulders above the other candidates. This came through very clearly in both the candidate debates and in the election addresses.

Gary Smith could point to a record of challenging collaboration and institutionalised corruption while transforming GMB Scotland into a effective, dynamic and growing region of the union. This isn’t a question of Gary Smith cultivating a militant reputation for his own benefit (as Dale Street insinuates) but of material fact and moral orientation. He did it because it needed doing, was the right thing to do, and he believes in it, not because it makes him look good.

He was the only candidate with any kind of commitment to an industrial fightback by the union.

That programme includes: • Building action for £15 per hour for care workers • Fighting for proper recognition and collective bargaining at Asda • Establishing a women’s Campaign Unit to launch industrial battles on the equal pay agenda • Taking forward the fight on NHS pay • Fighting redundancies in manufacturing and other sectors.

Gary Smith could also count on the support from the best organised and most militant sections of the GMB and from the overwhelming majority of the best workplace activists. From British Gas, across the utilities, in manufacturing, engineering construction, education, local government, retail, logistics, the gig economy and the NHS, whatever the sector, wherever there was any degree of independent workplace organisation there was clear majority support for Gary Smith.


In contrast, Rehana Azam as Public Services National Secretary has presided over long years of deep pay cuts for GMB members in the sector and falling membership. She has no identifiable programme for fighting back and little depth of support even in the sector she purportedly leads.

A big part of her election message was to talk of her great achievements securing PPE for care workers at the start of the pandemic and breaking the public sector pay freeze.

Yes you read that right. Not surprisingly this rang hollow with GMB members on the frontline. She had mistaken her own warm feelings about rubbing shoulders with Ministers and top civil servants at the height of the crisis last spring, with the reality in the workplace. To people who’ve had a real terms 15% pay cut, or worked through the pandemic without proper PPE, her claims undermined her credibility. In the end the only sector in which Rehana got overwhelming support was amongst GMB branches for employees of other unions.

So if the reasons for supporting Gary Smith against Rehana Azam are clear, what about the other candidate?

Dale Street describes Giovanna Holt as the only candidate with a proven track record of taking on bullying and misogyny in the GMB. Unfortunately he provides no evidence for this claim, which is a problem as we don’t know of any evidence for it either. So until Dale puts his evidence on the table we’re just left with an assertion.

Identity politics

He then goes on to imply that Gary Smith should’ve stepped aside anyway because he’s a white male Regional Secretary. Unfortunately for Dale the majority of class conscious activists in the GMB, including the majority of women and black activists, don’t buy identity politics.

They can see that it’s true that Gary Smith is a white male and that he was a Regional Secretary. However, he was a Regional Secretary who smashed up corrupt union organisation and launched the biggest strike for women’s equal pay in history, a strike which included GMB members taking unlawful solidarity strike action and the union facing down legal threats from the employer. He was a white male Regional Secretary who led the cultural transformation of GMB Scotland into a fighting union far more representative of the membership, and with inspiring women leaders at lay and officer levels.

Activists can also see that as General Secretary he has already taken aim at the gravy-train-riding committee-jockey culture that sustains patronage and bullying, backs up dictatorial Regional Secretaries, and excludes women and black workers. He has singled out the national “hospitality” budget which reached £2 million under Tim Roach as something to be cut. He has demanded that Regional secretaries justify every penny of expenditure in relation to how it helps build the union. He wants to cut the pipeline that fuels the culture of cronyism. He has pledged to make it cheaper for people to be GMB members, and as a first step has frozen subs for 2021-22. And he has already made significant changes (doubling childcare support) to make it easier for working-class women to take on officer roles.

Work to do

The best activists also know that there is a huge amount of work ahead in GMB. Despite the fact it is holding up much better than Unite, GMB paying membership is at an all-time low. Gary Smith has made reversing this trend, rather than managing decline, the core of his platform. He has also spelt out that the way to reverse the trend is to drop partnership and embrace militant organising with a focus on exploiting tight labour markets to win on pay.

Gary Smith was the class struggle choice in the GMB election and socialists should celebrate his victory. If you can’t see that then god help you.

• Reply by Dale Street here.


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