An ally of Jeremy Corbyn has claimed trade unions that are involved in the nuclear industry have become “a voice for big business” because they have been weakened in other sectors.
Clive Lewis, the former shadow secretary of state for energy, singled out GMB for being too close to the nuclear lobby and said it was not speaking up for renewable energy because it did not have members there. He also questioned why unions “fight to the bitter end” for the arms industry.
His comments reflect tensions within the Labour movement over union support for nuclear power and a nuclear deterrent. GMB, Unite and Prospect have tens of thousands of members in the nuclear and arms industries. Corbyn has called for a “nuclear-free world”.
Lewis told a fringe event on energy at Labour’s conference in Brighton: “One of the problems with where trade unions are at the moment is that they have been so weakened that I think they have become, and have been used by big business as, a voice for big business.
“Because big business understands that if you have a unionised workforce they also become spokespeople for you. They create a situation where you have a wide and broad spectrum politically of people supporting your particular position.
“On nuclear, yes, GMB and other unions are staunchly supporting it because the jobs there generate union members. Contrast that to the highly self-employed solar sector: the unions have no trade unions there. They are not speaking up at all for them.”
He said unions had thrown their weight behind plans for Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power plant to be built in the UK for 20 years.
“That is one of the reasons that a big song and dance and hoo-ha about solar wasn’t made by the unions and yet they are getting staunchly behind Hinkley,” Lewis said.
“It is also the reason why trade unions fight to the bitter end on the arms industry – because they have high-quality jobs and strong membership there and this is their lifeblood. Without the members they don’t exist.”
He told a 60-strong audience at an event organised by Labour Energy Forum that the Labour movement needed to do more to get involved in the renewable energy sector.
“There are obviously other things we could do – we could encourage unions and activism in the renewal industries as something that is good for business,” he said.
A GMB spokesperson reacted furiously to Lewis’s comments. He said: “We’ll put copies of the Uber and Addison Lee judgments in the post for Clive. He can have a read about what taking on big business and organising ‘self-employed workers’ really looks like.
“Our energy workers keep the lights on. Of course we want more renewables, and we want good renewable jobs here in the UK, but right now they don’t exist because the government isn’t investing.
“GMB will always stand up for our members and their jobs – that’s who we speak for, that’s what a trade union does.”
GMB has confirmed that its 3,000 members working at Sellafield in Cumbria will go on strike on Wednesday over a pay row.