Three takeaways from Len McCluskey’s attack

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

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20 Responses to “Three takeaways from Len McCluskey’s attack”

  1. swatantra says:

    This could well play out in EdM’s favour. Just as Scargill turned out to be the saviour and makings of MrsT, McCluskey could well turn out to be the makings of EdM. A showdown is the best possible thing that could and should happen, and EdM has already hinted at it. A showdown over Clause IV helped Tony on his way to establishing his credentials as a tough no nonsense type of ordinary sort of guy. So all EdM has to do is hold his nerve and tell McCluskey to get lost. In the meantime, drop Ed Balls and Liam Byrne and build up Jim Murphy as Deputy Leader instead of Harriet, and the Worlds his Oyster.

  2. e says:

    I reckon that anyone responsible for 28% of Tory funding would get a private dinner at which to discuss issues of contention. What we get is nauseatingly familiar and belittles all at the centre of the debate.

  3. Ex-Labour says:


    Red Ed can’t tell Red Len to get lost as Red Len and his union is funding the Labour party to the tune of £20 Million over the last two years ? If he upsets his patron who provides the money for 2015 election ?

    Red Len and his minions are already selecting Labour MEP’s, now they are selecting the shadow cabinet and as one politico put it this morning he has Ed Balls in his sights as the next head to roll.

    Labour infighting, better than expected GDP figures…as Dan Hodges blog piece puts it “Ed’s luck has run out”.

    Did anyone who reads this blog not expect McLuskey to want his poud of flesh at sometime ?

  4. Alan Ji says:

    Foolish comments, ex-Labour.

    Len McCluskey was elected after Ed Miliband. The people Ed most has to thank for encouraging Unite members ot vote for him have retired.
    Local Government workers have just been offered a 1% pay rise. When they vote to accept it, why would an incoming Labour government need to offer much more to its own or Quango employees?

  5. Renie Anjeh says:

    Igt is interested that Nick Watt said in the Daily Politics that a senior shadow cabinet minister said, “there are Bennites in the trade unions, like Len McCluskey, they must be fought and defeated”. It seems that by Ed’s condemnation of McCluskey this morning, so I ex-Labour’s wild comments on ‘Red Ed’ have been completely blown out of the water. Ed Miliband just needs to get his act together. He needs to start filling in the policy vacuum – sharpish! He needs a reshuffle within the next few months, to really prepare him for 2015. He needs to do a few speeches on welfare and the economy – and stick to the Comprehensive Spending Review’s overall envelope whilst attacking some of their priorities in June. He must deal with the neo-Bennites, before it gets any worse. Then in 2014, he brings back Alistair Darling and moves Ed Balls to another top job.

  6. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Just more parading by Union Prima Donnas tyring to make Ed look like Blair, trying the impossible, trying to make a Labour Leader seem tough with the Unions, an old empty game that is meaningless and has been played out so many times before. Banging the drums in vain…nobody is interested lol

  7. Robert says:

    I do not agree with some of the terminology in this article. McCluskey is clearly on the left of the Labour Party but the Blairites are on the far right of the Labour Party not the centre. I thought the 1983 manifesto was mad and strongly supported Kinnock and Smith. However, New Labour was just awful and Ed Miliband is right to distance himself from that era. My view is that that the Labour Party would be better off if Blair and McCluskey would shut up for the next two years.

  8. Henrik says:

    @Robert: ” However, New Labour was just awful” – I know, they won elections, terrible, wasn’t it?

    Comrades, seriously, the electorate is not following you guys into the sunlit uplands of the Left. Either hold your noses and talk about what normal folk care about and stay in the electoral game or keep your purity and condemn yourselves to a certain one and probably two Parliaments jeering and gesticulating impotently from the side lines while the grown ups clear up the mess… and I shan’t point out who left the mess in the first place.

  9. Dan Filson says:

    There are many ways in which this is a silly article, not least the assertion that Ed Balls is the target of a message which most people understood perfectly, that still advocating cuts – albeit less deep and less fast – was not going to be an election-winning strategy. But the silliest is the idea that the union’s funding of the Labour Party is “his lavish funding” as if the decision is his alone. Trade union leaders are not barons, as the press choses to label them, they are leaders of democratic bodies.

  10. LesAbbey says:

    …expect the briefings and comments to shift from phantom Blairite conspiracies.

    If only they were phantom them maybe we would have a Labour mayor in London.

  11. Danny says:

    There are some Labour members who need to get away from this ridiculous, “it won elections, it must be good”. A government should be judged on its consequences. The legacy of 10 years of Tony Blair is a financial crisis and a gross expansion on the gap between the rich and the poor. Very little happened to improve the lives of society’s most disadvantaged, and for a Labour government that is deeply, deeply shameful. We engendered an environment where the well-off could get rich and the rich could get filthy-rich. And now that unsustainable bubble has burst, it is the people who enjoyed no real benefit in the boom years who are having to pay the price.

    Despite this, there are still many people hankering for a repeat of the New Labour disaster. The only argument for this opinion is, “it won three elections!”. The Tory’s won the previous three, what’s your point?

    And the vitriol towards the Union movement by your Progress-types in unfathomable for people who claim to be Labour supporters. I can understand disliking individuals fronting unions or having negative opinions of certain unions, but everyone associated with Labour should agree that collective strength of the workers to negotiate rights and fair pay, which unions engender, is intrinsically right. Sadly, too many on the right of the party simply dismiss the union movement as anti-business and antiquated. This makes not only your opinion wrong, but also your choice of party.

  12. John Reid says:

    Ex labour, why is unite funding labour ,During Blairs years the unions only gave z30% of funding and , all but 2% of it certainly wasn’t from unite, if Eds got any sense he’ll tell Mcklukey where to stick it, and get the money elsewhere

  13. Ex-Labour says:

    @Alan Ji

    Foolish comments eh ? Just do a bit of research fella and see who funds the party and which union has contributed £20 million plus.

    I’ll give you a clue……the answer is in my first comment.

    @ Renie Anjeh

    I generally agree with most of your comment except my “wild” comments on Red Ed. Here’s a question for you. Just about every polical jurno and commentator acknowledges that Labour has gone and the great and good of previous Labour administrations have over the last two weeks urged Red Ed not to go left and move back to the centre – so are all these people “wild ” as well ?

    Ed M is on the wrong side of every public opinion and there is a vacuum where policies should be. But the only mutterings we have heard so far have been utter drivel and missied the point totally. I’m not going to go through them again just flick back over previous blog comments.


    Blairites “far right” ? No they were centre lead and had policies which the electorate voted for. You could only classify them as right if of course you are of the far left.

    @ Danny

    Its an absolute disgrace that New Labour should speak for and represent the views of ordinary people. How dare they win three elections. Dont the public know that the far left knows better than anyone? The unions should have the right to bring the country to its knees as they did in the 70’s. Power to the people comrades / SARC

  14. Renie Anjeh says:

    He is not Red Ed – if anything he is Purple Ed or Blue Ed. How can a former vice chair of Progress, former New Labour SpAd, former New Labour minister, passionate friend of Israel wrote who and endorsed the Blue Labour book and the Purple Book, be described as leftwing. The people from the past, were not saying that Labour was moving to the left – in fact Blair said that Labour should stand by its economic record and not move to the right as well – they were arguing for him to fill up the vacuum. The philosophy is all there but it needs to be backed up by policy. But Ed is not leftwing, you are doing yourself a massive disservice by suggesting such thing. Even David Miliband said there are little if any ideological differences between the two bros.

  15. John Reid says:

    Danny the Tories won the three previous ones ,too Blairs, well if went for Blair the Tories would have won 7 election between 79- 2005

    Robert, I’d say that Labour was a more extreme party in 87 than 83′ we were proposing to undo things the Tories had done in the 83-87 government ,like renationalise the privatised utilities, at the price they’d been sold for, and bring back the view that union membership was compulsory and that union ,embers had to be affiliated financially to the Labour Party. And then there was the policy o scrap the police and the views of the loony left, the 83 manifesto ,apart from unilateralism, leaving Europe and nationalising the 25 biggest industries, there wasn’t that much difference between. The 83 manifesto and the 74 one,

  16. Danny says:

    @ Ex-Labour

    New Labour represent the views of the ordinary people?! Why don’t you go and ask 1,000 people for their views on the position New Labour left the economy in? Or for their opinions on Iraq? Or for New Labour’s realtionship with Rupert Murdoch? Or for a three word description of Tony Blair?

    Despite the fact that the vast majority of those 1,000 would have nothing complimentary to say in response to any of the lines on enquiry, people still want us to rekindle that approach. The public are even now starting to come round to the idea of renationalising many sectors. After all, it has pretty much been proven by the rail, water and energy companies that the benefits of privatisation simply do not exist, accept for the handful of rich shareholders.

    And for the people who moan about the union funding of the Labour Party, what would you prefer? That more of our money came from millionaire lobbyists who would demand policy to be amended to suit them, rather than unions leaning on the party for policy to be amended to suit their millions and millions of members who choose to pay money to be a part of those unions?

    And John Reid, if you think Blair was key to the 1997 election success then you have a short memory. A random man in a chimp suit as Labour leader would have been enough to beat the Tories that year. As for the two following victories we will never know, but I’m inclined to believe, given the eventual disaster New Labour has proven to be, John Smith’s passing was one the most damaging events of the 1990s for our country.

  17. John Reid says:

    Danny, I recall at the 92 election when labour was 10% ahead people were saying that a mn in a chimp suit would have won then and we didn’t, yes the Tories were out of ideas, read both Philip Gould, Blakrs and Pal rout ledges book on Mandleson they all though that had John smith lived we would have lost, Smith was rowing with the shadow cabinet around the time of his passing as he wasn’t against getting rid of clause 4′ Bryan Gould was saying to Smith that smith s wrong to try to fight the unions into giving one me,ber ,one vote rather than debating with them, as although Kinnock had got brownie points taking on militant unions, it wasn’t a fight that was needed to get the unions to give us OMOV, as for had smith lived that we would have won, and then won agin in 2001′ I’ll disagree again, as there were huge rows with the left on the back benches, trying to go back on our commitment not to put tax up, and smith didn’t have the fight in him, to stand up toCorbyn and co. we were 1% ahead in the opinion polls the week Smith died, we were. 26% ahead in 1990

    As for your comment to ex labour about us and the economy, I feel that new labour finished when Blair wnt, o it was Brown and not new labour that messed up. He economy, I recall that Blair as New labour, would have continued the cuts that the coalition is doing now, so hd Blair stayed on, he may have had the publics consent to run the economy and started the cuts earlier, without so much debt,

  18. Danny says:

    Ah, I see, it was the three years of Brown that ruined the economy, the ten years prior had nothing to do with it!? Despite the fact that in the run up to the 2010 election, the economy was actually on the right track (after New Labour was finished, apparently).

    Your statement that it was all Brown’s fault and not Blair merely serves to show that to be a Blair apologist, you need to leave common sense and logic at the door.

    A return to New Labour ideology would be suicide, more for the state it would leave the country in than our election prospects. But hey, the latter is all that matters, right? So long as we get elected, it doesn’t matter how poorly we govern?

  19. John Reid says:

    Danny myou know fall well taht Gordon ws running the economy, and that Bair ws too scared to sack him, he wanted to resign earlier, but ,his supporters convinced him not too, and that he wasn’t told by Gotdon what was going on, are you saying tht the first 8 years of Blair that we didn’t control the economy right,

    See you don’t reply to my other view tht Had J Smith won, that I believe we could have lost,

  20. Danny says:

    What’s to reply, they are opinions that can never be intrinsically proven, but I believe you are in a very small minority if you genuinely think that 1997 would have been a Tory victory without Blair.

    Correct me if I am wrong,but the First Lord of the Treasury between 1997 and 2007 was Tony Blair. He is responsible for appointing a Chancellor, retaining him and most importantly, is responsible for the economy. Denying this is just another example of the illogical avenues one must travel to arrive at a conclusion that suggests Blair and New Labour were anything but bad for Britain’s medium and long term future.

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