by Atul Hatwal
In one sense, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Unite have been absolutely clear about their position and all Len McCluskey did yesterday in his New Statesman interview was to articulate what he and his union have been saying privately for the past two years.
That McCluskey is hostile to Labour centrists (or Blairites as anyone out of sympathy with the 1983 manifesto is termed these days) is hardly news.
But the directness of the intervention is notable, as are some of the choice details he let slip. Rather inadvertently, Len McCluskey has presented an insight into the current state of the power politics being played out behind the scenes in the Labour party.
Three points are evident: McCluskey is nervous about his influence with Ed Miliband, he thinks Labour is currently headed for defeat at the next election and his real target was Ed Balls.
First, in terms of influence, when Len McCluskey is getting his way he is as quiet as a mouse. Nothing is said to rock the boat, publicly he is a picture of collegiate harmony.
In January 2012, when the two Ed’s dared to back a public sector wage freeze, he snarled into life. At the time, Ed Miliband pushed back but soon after the exchange a strange calm descended. No further comment came from McCluskey in response to the Labour leader’s apparent slap down.
The reason? Both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls had agreed never to let the words “public sector pay freeze” cross their lips again. McCluskey had got his way and it was back to playing happy Labour families.
The Unite general secretary’s intervention yesterday is a sign that he is not hearing what he wants in his private conversations with Labour’s leaders.
The spending review is scheduled for the 26th June and will be the pivotal moment of this parliament. For months Labour has avoided the question of where it stands on spending. Will it stick to Tory spending plans (or something very similar) or reject further austerity on the scale proposed by the Tories and the Lib Dems?
The pressure for Labour to give a clear sense of its direction of travel at the spending review will be enormous.
Anything less than a clear sign that Labour will commit to spending more than the Tories, and above all else, provide a generous pay settlement for McCluskey’s public sector members, will be unacceptable for the union.
At his recent re-election, McCluskey faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from the left. His opponent Jerry Hicks, who also stood in 2010, managed to increase his vote share from 22% to 35%. This was after a campaign where Hicks barely had any funds and McCluskey refused to debate his opponent or engage directly with him.
For Hicks to increase his vote by over half is a sign McCluskey’s rank and file are headed left. To maintain his authority, McCluskey desperately needs to show some tangible return at the spending review from his lavish funding of the Labour party.
Second, and perhaps most revealingly, McCluskey hints strongly he thinks Labour is currently headed for defeat. He buys the argument (privately shared by most of the shadow cabinet) that the Tories will attempt to run a carbon copy of Obama’s successful re-election campaign. As he says, the message will be,
“You’ve had difficult times, you’ve had to go through horrible situations but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, stick with me. “
In response McCluskey calls for Ed Miliband “to create a radical alternative,” implying heavily that for all the sociology seminar talk from the leadership of “redefining capitalism”, Labour’s current policy has not described any form of alternative.
Many in the party will disagree with McCluskey’s view of what constitutes the alternative, but on one point there is now a rare unity between the centrists and the left: the one nation rhetoric is meaningless.
What matters are hard decisions on taxes, spending and borrowing. It is these practical choices that will define the offer presented by the party to the public at the next election, not the think tank puffery of endless abstract theorising.
Third, it is clear from the interview is that Len McCluskey’s real target wasn’t a mythical Blairite cabal. The man in his sights was Ed Balls.
Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander were just proxies; examples to show that Unite’s leader would not shy away from taking on leading members of the shadow cabinet.
Len McCluskey no more thinks that these three ministers will set Labour policy on spending than he believes the tooth fairy will frame health policy. One man, and one man alone, is in total control of Labour’s economic policy.
By calling for three members of the shadow cabinet to be sacked, McCluskey was sending a clear message to Ed Balls: the union is watching and ready to act if it doesn’t get the right answers on the spending review.
In the next few weeks, as the spending review draws near, expect the briefings and comments to shift from phantom Blairite conspiracies. First the villains will be Ed Balls’ political advisers, then the MPs that are closest to the shadow chancellor and finally Ed Balls himself.
Len McCluskey’s intervention has signalled the start of the denouement of a drama long in the making.
From the point Ed Miliband was elected on the basis of union votes, and then bolstered by the left, there would always come a time when the piper would have to be paid.
Yesterday the Unite general secretary put Labour’s leadership on notice that come the 26th of June, he intends to collect.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut