Labour Research October 2019


Labour’s candidates are part of the union

With a general election looking increasingly likely, Labour Research examines the trade union backgrounds of some of those fighting for the Labour Party’s top target seats. 

As delegates gather at the Labour Party annual conference in Brighton, it’s as well to remember that Labour is the party set up by the TUC to support working class candidates in elections. 

So Labour Research contacted around 50 Labour candidates selected in close marginal seats, and seats where the sitting MP has left the Labour Party, to examine the candidates’ trade union links. 

We looked at seats currently held by Conservative and Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. We also looked at seats where Labour has selected a candidate to take on MPs who have resigned from Labour or the Conservatives and currently sit as independents or for other parties. And we found that prospective Labour MPs continue to have strong ties to the movement.


For example, trade unionists in Birkenhead will be very familiar with Mick Whitley, who will take on ex-Labour minister Frank Field at the next election. Whitley spent decades as a shop steward and convenor at the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port before taking up the post of North West regional secretary for the Unite general union. 

Field resigned the Labour whip in 2018 and will stand as an independent in the next general election in the seat he has held since 1979. He had a 25,514 majority over the Tories in the 2017 election.

Airdrie and Shotts

Helen McFarlane is hoping to take back Airdrie and Shotts for Labour and is another long-time Unite activist. This is Scotland’s third most marginal seat and McFarlane reduced the SNP majority from almost 9,000 in 2015 to just 195 in 2017. It was previously held by Labour. 

She was a local rep in MSF, a predecessor union to Unite, where she became active and involved in its regional and national committees. She was elected to one of two NHS seats on Unite’s 60-strong national executive committee.

McFarlane said: “I moved many motions at union conferences — from renationalising the railways, to justice for Columbia, to industrial issues in the NHS — in the hope of making the world a better place.” And she says she saw these issues reflected in the Labour Party’s manifesto in 2017. 

Milton Keynes North

Charlynne Pullen has been selected to fight Milton Keynes North where she needs to overturn a 1,915 Tory majority. 

Her trade union background includes being the student representative on Oxford and District trades council while she was at university, and several years as a Unite workplace rep at the City & Guilds London Institute.

As an Islington councillor in north London, she was involved with Unite Young Members and also joined the GMB general union. She worked closely with the GMB to bring Islington’s waste services back in-house and has supported GMB members at the Milton Keynes warehouse of online giant Amazon.

Hastings and Rye

Hastings and Rye prospective Parliamentary candidate (PPC) Peter Chowney has been in a union ever since leaving school, and is currently a member of Unite and the GMB. In 2017, he almost unseated former work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd — who resigned her cabinet position and the Tory whip on 8 September — reducing her majority from 4,796 to just 346. 

Chipping Barnet

Emma Whysall is a member of Unite, the GMB and the UNISON public services union and works for Thompsons Solicitors representing injured trade unionists. She needs just 353 more votes to unseat environment secretary Theresa Villiers in Chipping Barnet in Greater London. 


Unite member Fleur Anderson was expecting to fight Justine Greening in Putney, south west London. But the former education secretary announced recently that she was standing down. 

Greening, one of 21 Tory MPs to have the whip withdrawn in early September for rebelling against the government and voting to block a No-Deal Brexit, had a majority of 1,554 at the last election. 

Anderson has campaigned with unions worldwide, including global union federation Public Services International, for the right to water and sanitation. 

She has also worked with street sellers’ trade unions in Kenya to campaign for access to justice, with global nurses unions to campaign for decent sanitation and water in health centres, and with computer factory workers in Central America for decent working conditions. 

“Unions have never been needed more, both in here in the UK and globally,” she told Labour Research. “I’ve seen how much we can achieve together by working nationally and internationally for workers’ rights and to save public services, and I look forward to using this experience to have a very local and also global perspective as MP for Putney.”


Worcester’s Labour PPC Lynn Denham began her working life as a hospital pharmacist and joined the Guild of Hospital Pharmacists, which merged into a number of unions before they in turn became part of Unite. She later became a general manager in the NHS but retained her union membership and is now a Unite retired member. She needs to turn around a Tory majority of 2,490.

Camborne, Redruth and Hayle

Paul Farmer is hoping to win the Cornwall constituency of Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, where the Tories currently have a majority of 1,577. He has been “a committed trade unionist for a very long time”. 

As a bus driver, he was a member of Unite predecessor union the TGWU. He was in the Theatre Writers’ Union until it became part of the Writers Guild of Great Britain, and later joined the Community section of Unite. He is also a member of the UCU lecturers’ union.


Peter Lamb, the PPC for Crawley in West Sussex, has been a member of Unite and one of its predecessor unions, Amicus, since he was a student. He is also a GMB member and worked closely with UNISON as leader of Crawley council for the last five years. He has to overcome a Tory majority of 2,457. 


Labour is fielding a number of current and former UNISON activists, including ex-shop steward Navendu Misra who is standing in Stockport. Misra has also been a UNISON industrial organiser for care workers in Greater Manchester. 

He will take on former Labour MP Ann Coffey who had a 14,477 majority over the Tories in 2017. Coffey has held the seat since 1992 but resigned from Labour earlier this year to join Change UK, now known as The Independent Group for Change (TIGC). 

Motherwell and Wishaw

UNISON activist, full-time NHS podiatrist and North Lanarkshire local councillor Angela Feeley reduced the SNP majority in Motherwell and Wishaw from almost 12,000 to just 318 in the 2017 general election. 

She has worked in the NHS for 25 years and has been a UNISON shop steward for nine years, representing health service workers in Wishaw hospital and local health centres. 

She is the political officer for her UNISON branch. And she is vice-chair of UNISON Labour Link in Scotland which, the union says, “works directly within the Labour Party to take UNISON’s policies into the heart of the party”.


In Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, UNISON rep Greg Marshall is hoping to unseat Anna Soubry who resigned from the Tories earlier this year and is now a member of TIGC. He has been a UNISON shop steward for around 20 years and sits on the union’s water, environment and transport group executive as well as the Environment Agency (EA) sector committee. He is also a member of the EA national negotiating group. 

Soubry held on to her seat at the last election, but Marshall reduced her majority from 4,287 to just 863.

Glasgow North

Pam Duncan-Glancy needs to overturn an SNP majority of 1,060 to win in Glasgow North. She works in the NHS and was a UNISON workplace rep for around four years as well as a member of the Scottish TUC disabled members committee. 

Most recently, she has been involved in the Better Than Zero campaign to end zero hours contracts — the campaign led by the GMB for equal pay for care workers in Glasgow — and campaigned with Unite to end Universal Credit. 

She also worked with UNISON to set up Scotland Against the Care Tax which saw the union work closely with disabled people’s organisations to campaign against care charges. 

And she has worked with the NUJ journalists’ union on disability activism in Scotland. This included holding a round table to look at the representation of disabled people in the media. She is also a member of the Community trade union.

Preseli Pembrokeshire

In Preseli Pembrokeshire, one of Labour’s top Wales target seats, Phillipa Thompson needs just 314 more votes to take the seat from former Tory work and pensions minister Stephen Crabb. She is a UNISON member and former chair of the diplomatic service trade union side. 

Finchley and Golders Green

Finchley and Golders Green candidate Sara Conway is a member of UNISON and the GMB and is planning an event with unions and young people in the constituency. She needs to overturn a Tory majority of 1,657. 

She will also face former Labour shadow minister Luciana Berger who resigned from Labour, initially to join TIGC. Berger will move from Liverpool Wavertree to fight the Golders Green seat for the Liberal Democrats.

Morecambe and Lunesdale

Labour’s candidate in Morecambe and Lunesdale, Lizzi Collinge, has been a UNISON member for many years. The Tories took the seat with a 1,399 majority in 2017.

Morley and Outwood

GMB Yorkshire regional organiser Deanne Ferguson has been selected to fight for Labour in the Morley and Outwood constituency in Yorkshire and the Humber. The Conservatives held the seat in 2017 with a 2,104 majority. (Former Labour chancellor Ed Balls narrowly lost the seat to Tory Andrea Jenkyns in 2015.)

Ferguson has been campaigning to improve conditions for workers at the Barnsley distribution warehouse of the ASOS online fashion retailer.

Dunfermline and Fife West

Labour’s candidate in Dunfermline and Fife West, Cara Hutton, needs to overturn an SNP majority of 844. She joined MSF as a teenager and currently has membership of Unite and the Usdaw shopworkers’ union. 

She was a member of the GMB’s national young members’ committee and served on the STUC youth committee. 

Hutton has been a union rep in workplaces including the NHS Executive and City of York Council. And she worked for Usdaw as assistant to a national officer for nine years. 

As a member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) she was “a strong supporter of the Scottish Parliament Trade Union Group and of trade union campaigns”, and has strong links with local union activists and Fife Trades Council. 

Sheffield Hallam

GMB member Olivia Blake chaired the University of Sheffield’s Living Wage campaign and worked with her union to secure the real Living Wage rate (set by the Living Wage Foundation) for the lowest-paid workers. She aims to win back Sheffield Hallam for Labour. 

Jared O’Mara took the seat for Labour from former Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in 2017 with a 2,125 majority. O’Mara resigned from Labour in 2018. However, it’s not clear whether he will stand in the next general election as he has postponed his resignation as an MP. 


David Pinto-Duschinsky has been selected to fight the Tories in Hendon, north London, where they won with a 1,072 majority in 2017. He is “proud to be an active trade unionist” and is vice chair of his central London GMB branch. 

South Swindon

Sarah Church will try for a second time to unseat Tory Robert Buckland in South Swindon where he won in 2017 with a 2,464 majority. 

She wasn’t allowed to join a union while she was a soldier. But she joined the GMB after she left the army and works with the union on local campaigns. She’s also a member of Unite Community. 

Southampton Itchen

Secondary school science teacher and former Southampton Council leader Simon Letts is hoping to take Labour’s top target marginal seat of Southampton Itchen. Letts is a member of Unite and, in a previous teaching job, was a workplace rep in the NASUWT teachers’ union for 12 years as well as a health and safety rep. He narrowly failed to unseat Tory MP Royston Smith in 2017, losing by a mere 31 votes.


Labour’s candidate in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, Jane Aitchison, needs just 331 more votes to topple Tory incumbent Stuart Andrew. Aitchison has worked in the benefits system for over 25 years where she has always been a union rep.She is a past president of the PCS civil service union and is currently president of Leeds TUC. 

She told Labour Research what drove her to stand as an MP, and says the fact that she is “an ordinary working class woman” does make a difference.

She added: “Seeing me on the bus and in the supermarket helps people understand that I am very much one of them and that I intend to stay one of them — as I have pledged to only take half the MPs’ salary when I am elected.” 

Aitchison believes that “many ordinary trade unionists” like her are “getting stuck back into the Labour party — seizing the opportunity to make it work fully in our interests again”.

‘Why i’m standing for Labour’

Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Pudsey, Jane Aitchison, needs to win just 331 more votes to take the seat. 

Aitchison works for the Department for Work and Pensions and is an activist in the PCS civil service union.

“The film I, Daniel Blake best sums up what drove me to stand [for Labour],” she said. The film shows how easy it is for anyone to suddenly need the support of our benefits system — through ill health, misfortune or bereavement. And how, without real support and compassion, people can spiral into poverty and despair.”

For most of her 25 years working in the benefits system, she says she felt she could make a difference to people who had fallen on hard times. But with benefit sanctions, disability testing, cuts and Universal Credit, that has become more and more difficult. 

Austerity, pay freezes and zero hours contracts have also made it harder as a union rep to improve members’ pay and conditions.

“I knew that what we really needed was radical political change,” she said. And she said that when Jeremy Corbyn stood as leader of the Labour party, offering the very change she feels she, her union members, all working people and benefit claimants needed, she vowed to do whatever she could to get him into power.

“I realised that practically everything that I and my union members needed could be achieved if we could get Labour into power — even some things we weren’t asking for, like four extra bank holidays a year!

“I was so disappointed when Labour lost [in 2017]. So, when a few months later I was asked to stand as the MP, I knew I had to put my money where my mouth is.”

Calder Valley

Another candidate with a PCS background is Calder Valley’s Labour candidate Josh Fenton Glynn who previously worked at the union’s head office. He needs to overturn a Tory majority of 609 to win the West Yorkshire seat.

Glasgow South West

CWU communications union activist Matt Kerr will again take on the SNP in Labour’s most marginal Scottish seat, Glasgow South West. The SNP held on to the seat in 2017 by just 60 votes. 

Kerr has been a member of the union since 1996 when he began work as a postal worker. Although he left Royal Mail to become a full-time Glasgow City councillor in 2010, he continues to be active in the union and is currently political secretary of the CWU in Scotland. His fellow CWU member, Chris Webb, aims to overturn a Tory majority of 2,023 to win Blackpool North and Cleverleys.

Bolton West

Former regional organiser for the TSSA rail union Julie Hilling is hoping to win back the Bolton West seat she lost by just 801 votes to the Tories in 2015. She needs to overturn Tory MP Chris Green’s current 936 majority. 

Barrow and Furness

Meanwhile, railway signaller Chris Altree is hoping to win back Barrow and Furness for Labour. The current MP, John Woodcock, resigned from Labour in July 2018 and currently sits as an independent. The Labour majority over the Conservatives was just 209 at the 2017 election. 

Altree, a member of the RMT rail union, works for Network Rail and supports rail nationalisation.