‘Our members need a Labour government’

“We’ve spent the last 14 years condemning the Tories. Now it’s time to do something about it,” Christina McAnea tells conference

Images: Marcus Rose

Spirits were high at UNISON’s national delegate conference in Brighton this morning as general secretary Christina McAnea delivered an invigorating speech to delegates. It focussed on the union’s power to defeat the Tories in the upcoming general election on 4 July.

Ms McAnea praised the union’s tenacity in the face of successive Conservative governments, which she described as “hell-bent on curbing workers’ rights.

“Over the last 14 years of Tory chaos and cuts – we’ve all suffered – along with the rest of the country,” Ms McAnea said. “A revolving door of clueless prime ministers and ministers making political choices that have resulted in  a cost of living crisis and plummeting living standards.

“Over the last 14 years, the Tories have broken our public services.

“UNISON members and the services they deliver need a Labour government,” she said. “I won’t pretend that with Labour in power everything will be rosy. There will be disagreements and difficult times, but we have been part of the negotiations on their  manifesto promises. Unlike the Tories, Labour are listening to us.”

The general secretary described how the union’s power and influence will increase under a new Labour government. “Under Labour, we will have a place at the table. Our challenge will be to keep pushing Labour to prioritise what matters to us and our members because they know that the jobs our members do, and the services they provide, are absolutely critical if we want to live in a fair, fully-functioning and flourishing society.”

“The leading characters in the story of rebuilding our society will be NHS workers, schools support staff, council workers, police staff, environmental officers and so many more public service workers.”

“I’ve heard people say: ‘why bother? What difference will my vote make?’ We were discussing the Labour party at the last NEC meeting, and there were people there who were very cynical about Labour – and I understand that, I really do.

“But then one of our NEC members, who sits in a low-pay reserved seat, spoke up. Abiola from Greater London said, as an NEC member representing low-paid workers, her greatest fear was that she would wake up on July 5th to find the Tories are still in power.

“Years of negotiating on behalf of our members has taught me that we should never let the perfect  be the enemy of the good.

“Whenever the Tories won a general election my mother used to cry because, like Abiola, she too was a low-paid worker all her life and she knew the Tories would do nothing for her, or for people and families like ours.

“We’ve spent the last 14 years condemning the Tories. Now it’s time to do something about it. On the 5th of July, I don’t want to wake up to multi-billionaire Rishi Sunak’s smiling face. How can a man who’s richer than the king, possibly understand the devastating impact of the cost of living crisis on ordinary working people?

“On the 5th of July  I want to wake up to a Labour government. To make sure: we get a national care service, a fair pay agreement for care workers, a new deal for school support staff, a government that understands the pressures on local authorities, a government committed to rebuilding our NHS, a government committed to ending not just the gender pay gap – but a pay gap that means you earn less money because you’re black or disabled. Only Labour is committed to making these changes.”

“I promise you I will do everything I can – and use all the power of our union – to make sure they deliver on the ambitious commitments in their manifesto and go further.”

Organising to win – and growing as a result

Ms McAnea also celebrated the union’s growing membership: “In the three years I’ve been your general secretary, UNISON has had three years of growth in membership and in activists.”

So far this year, UNISON has already recruited 100,000 new members and 4,000 new activists through its Organising to Win strategy. 

Ms McAnea told delegates of how she has spent much of the last year travelling to visit members taking industrial action, including a picket line outside a school in the Shetlands, where three support staff at a school with 18 pupils had taken strike action.

“I’ve been to north and south Wales and visited branches in every region – in ambulance stations, schools, hospitals, local authorities and many other places.

“I was in Belfast, where, despite a year-long dispute over pay for public service workers, our members braved a final, freezing cold 24-hours on strike – that forced politicians back into Stormont. 

“Change happened because our members took action.

“In Scotland we had the biggest local government strike in years – the Scottish government and employers, as always, saying ‘there’s no more money’ – but the action our members took forced them to dig that bit deeper and find it.”

Landmark legal victories

The general secretary also commended the union’s “outstanding lawyers who have listened to members’ voices, built compelling cases and delivered legal wins in the highest courts in the land.”

One of these was the union’s landmark victory against the government on behalf of Fiona Mercer, which Ms McAnea referred to as “the most important industrial action law case for decades”, as it resulted in the Supreme Court declaring, for the first time, that the right to strike is a fundamental human right.

Ms McAnea then announced, to a standing ovation of cheering delegates, the breaking news that UNISON’s legal team had, once again, won against the government in the High Court in a case about their response to the Windrush scandal. 

After UNISON’s challenge, the court ruled that the government’s decision to scrap key recommendations from the independent review into the Windrush scandal was unlawful. 

UNISON’s application to the High Court was supported by evidence from member Michael Braithwaite, a London teaching assistant who lost his job due to the scandal, which he described as “a total nightmare that destroyed my life.” UNISON gave evidence at the judicial review over two days in late April 2023.


Ms McAnea told conference delegates about her recent trip to the West Bank in Palestine as part of an international trade union delegation, where she met public sector workers and gained a new perspective on life for Palestinians under occupation.

“For the first time ever, all eight international union federations came together at the request of the Palestinian trade union federation.”

“I’d never been to Palestine before – but driving to Ramallah from Amman in Jordan, I saw something of the reality of life in an occupied country. Israeli forces control every border, they control all the roads, closing them and setting up road blocks where and when they please. It felt like a way to intimidate and humiliate Palestinians.

“One of the experiences that will stay long in my memory was of meeting a public sector worker from  the Jenin refugee camp  who told me he just wanted two things: the first was to have a night’s sleep where he wasn’t worrying about whether Israeli troops would come into the camp during the night, and secondly, he wanted a small patch of ground where he could safely play with his children.

“Such modest hopes, but ones which show how hard life is for Palestinians.”

Ms McAnea described how often Palestinian politicians and workers spoke about South Africa. And she announced how, next month, she will be speaking at Westminster Abbey on the 30th anniversary of the end of apartheid.

“I am proud to represent our union there – and it’s fitting that South Africa still stands as an example of how profound and peaceful change can emerge from  violence and oppression – even when there is deep division.”

Returning to the general election, Ms McAnea urged delegates to join her in voting for a Labour government and warned union members that “the greatest risk we face is complacency”. She concluded the speech with the words of Nelson Mandela, “It is in our hands to make a better world for all who live in it.”