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Sharon Graham will become the first leader of the Unite trade union not to attend the Labour party’s annual conference.

Graham, who was elected as Unite’s first female leader last month on a ticket that promised to take the union “back to the workplace”, told the BBC that she felt her time would be better spent supporting workers involved in industrial disputes.

“We shouldn’t always do what we have always done just because we have always done it,” she told the broadcaster.

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“I am days into my leadership – we currently have 16 industrial disputes going on, from Tesco drivers to Weetabix to locksmiths in Scunthorpe and Wolverhampton. What I need to do is be with those workers in dispute and personally take leadership.”

Her decision not to attend the Labour party conference is in “marked contrast” to her predecessor Len McCluskey, who led the union for a decade and was a “prominent” figure at Labour events, said The Times.

Some news outlets have suggested her decision not to attend the conference is a “snub” to Labour leader Keir Starmer, but Graham has insisted it is not, instead telling the BBC she had made a “priority decision”.

She also told The Times that she had a “useful” meeting with Starmer earlier this week, where she told him it was “unlikely” she would attend the annual party conference.

“I said I would be doing the day job to try to make sure workers don’t pay the price of the pandemic.”

A Unite delegation will instead be made up of Tony Woodhouse, the chairman of its executive council, and Rob MacGregor, its national political lead, according to the paper.

The news comes as Starmer has proposed controversial changes to Labour’s leadership election rules introduced by Ed Miliband and by which Starmer and his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn were elected.

Starmer is looking to scrap Labour’s “one member, one vote” system of electing a leader, and instead move to an “electoral college”. Under the system, the vote for leader would be split one third between MPs, one third between unions, and one third between constituency Labour parties – a significant change to the current system where all party members get a single, equal vote.

Critics of the plans say it is a “factional move to permanently disempower opponents of the leadership”, according to The Independent, and would return Labour to a broadly similar system used by the party until 2014.

Corbyn tweeted yesterday that the move would be “deeply undemocratic”, and indeed, the move is likely to be unpopular with the far-left of the party, where Graham enjoys support.

Graham has said now is not the time to make changes to leadership rules, telling The Times: “Given what is happening to workers and communities, surely this is not the time to talk about process, about the detail of Labour rules for election of the leader and selection of Labour candidates and the like.

“We should be focusing on the here and now, on real issues, like fire and rehire. I believe huge debates about rules now is a mistake.”

Her promise to focus on the workplace and less on Westminster politics could actually prove to be a boon to the Labour leader, making “a welcome change from Mr McCluskey’s tenure”, said Andrew Grice in The Independent.

Graham reportedly has “little interest in Labour’s internal manoeuvrings” according to those close to her, telling members during her election campaign that she had no wish to become embroiled in factional arguments.

In an interview in July, she said: “Our obsession with the Labour Party needs to end. The Parliamentary Labour Party is not going to win a wage rise or an industrial dispute. Labour is out of power.”

The new leader of Unite, the country’s largest trade union and one of Labour’s biggest financial donors, warned that she would not be “giving out blank cheques to any politician or political party”, saying members wanted to see “action for their money”.

Unite has “a long and complicated history with the Labour party”, noted Christopher Massey, senior lecturer in history and politics at Teesside University, on The Conversation. Under McCluskey, the union’s relationship with the Labour party “oscillated between a close embrace and all-out war”.

He served as a key ally to Corbyn, but was a vocal opponent of Labour strategy during the tenures of Miliband and Starmer.

While Graham’s leadership of Unite “could provide some relief for Starmer if she does indeed stay out of party politics”, wrote Massey, she has a record of pioneering “leverage” campaigns using strike action and demonstrations that have not aligned with Starmer’s recent opposition to teacher strikes and key workers quarantining.

Graham may, therefore, “pose a different type of challenge if her leadership moves Unite in a more militant direction on industrial relations”, concluded Massey.

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