We are about to see who really runs the Labour party. Let’s hope it’s not Len McCluskey

by Rob Marchant

Recent weeks have not exactly been glory days for Labour. The latest chapter, Monday’s car-crash World At One interview – with Miliband refusing to answer whether Labour would increase borrowing, thirteen times – made for excruciating, if compelling, radio; worse, yesterday’s official admission that Labour will do just that – increase borrowing – has left it exposed. As Nye Bevan might have put it, it enters “naked into the parliamentary chamber”.

But among the various pieces of bad news, there is one which particularly stands out, because it seems not only bad, but irreversibly so.

It is now a week since Len McCluskey’s extraordinary intervention, where he proposed a radical reworking of Labour’s programme, including the sacking of three shadow cabinet members. Not to mention the Labour leader’s robust and accurate response that McCluskey “does not speak for the Labour party”.

While the parliamentary lobby has moved on from the story, those familiar with the party’s organisation and history are still feeling the impact; a storm in a teacup it was not. And if Labour’s strategists are worth their salt, they might care more about McCluskey than about one bad interview; perhaps more, even, than a bet-the-farm gamble on increasing the national debt, two years before an election.

Why? This not just a textbook spat between union leaders and party leadership, in time-honoured fashion. One that burns brightly in the run-up to conference season every year and then fizzles out.

For a start, the language and tone is pretty much unprecedented from the leader of a large, mainstream, Labour-affiliated union (we wouldn’t care if it were PCS, or the NUJ, but Unite?). It’s difficult to remember a time since the 1980s when language has been so uncompromising. From either side.

Next, Miliband has the misfortune to be party leader in an era marked by the confluence of three currents: a current crop of union leaders well to the left of those of recent times; a consolidation of much trade union power away from the TUC and into the hands of the leaders of three “super-unions”; and Labour being very seriously skint. This combination has spelled trouble from the start of his leadership.

Finally it’s about personalities: McCluskey has already shown himself not to hold back in baring his teeth to the Labour leadership – and that is because his politics is clearly not of the mainstream Labour variety either.

There is history there: the New Statesman notes that he was a supporter of Militant (though not a member) in Merseyside during the 1980s, the disastrous era of Derek Hatton. His chief of staff, Andrew Murray, was chair of Stop The War Coalition for a decade and is still a member of the British Communist party. It is not difficult to see how Jim Murphy, a Blairite shadow defence secretary, who has made a point of welcoming former soldiers, sailors and airmen into the party, might rankle particularly in this company.

But the personalities’ thing also applies to Miliband, in the signals he has sent. His rebuff to McCluskey was wholly correct – anything less could have been a serious blow to his credibility.

However, it is also arguable that, had he not manifestly caved in to pressure from McCluskey last January over the government’s public-sector pay freeze, and had he responded more robustly, earlier, to last year’s GMB attack on New Labour think-tank Progress, McCluskey might not have been so quick to break cover as he was last week.

The real worry about these events is simple: there are two years till the general election. It is difficult to see how the Labour-Unite relationship can now be mended before that (or even afterwards, if Miliband is still leader).

Since the start of 2012, there has been a noticeable progression in the ferocity and audacity of such union attacks (indeed, if Atul Hatwal is correct, McCluskey’s next target may well be the circle around Ed Balls, or even Balls himself). But Unite’s is surely the most painful, and shows no signs of letting up. It may be that Miliband has stood up to it too late.

There are therefore few realistic possibilities: Miliband must quietly give in to some of McCluskey’s demands, or McCluskey will do something which hurts Labour – probably financially, as Labour’s largest donor (and if you think that hurting Labour’s campaigning capacity would represent a cutting-off-nose-to-spite-face exercise for McCluskey, that presupposes that to him a Miliband win is a serious or even a desirable prospect).

The possibility that McCluskey backs down with nothing in return, looks rather unlikely in light of the loss of face it would mean for a man whose main political challenge is from the left.

In short, a dangerous game of brinkmanship has been started by McCluskey, from which it is difficult to step back and which could easily end in that traditional staple of Labour politics: the circular firing squad.

We are about to see who really runs the Labour party. And, although we certainly hope to the contrary, there is a possibility that we may not like the answer.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at the Centre Left

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14 Responses to “We are about to see who really runs the Labour party. Let’s hope it’s not Len McCluskey”

  1. Harry Barnes says:

    Who runs the Labour Party? Anybody but its members.

  2. swatantra says:

    Harry is right. A similar question could be put to the Unions.
    Lets have OMOV in both. And any turnout less than 50% held invalid, and reballoted.

  3. Ex-labour says:

    First lets deal with the Miliband interview. Rarely have I heard such a poor interview from a party leader. His tone varied from flustered to aggressive and back to frustration. Goodness knows what would have happened had they let Paxo or Brillo have a go? His already poor leadership ratings must now be heading further south.

    As for McLuskey I said on here a few weeks ago that whoever pays the piper calls the tune and now we see it in the open. Mc is under pressure from even wilder left wing zealots in his own organisation so has to react to show his authority. I’m sure his blast last week is the first of many and if his wishes are dismissed then watch the funds dry up.

    With the MEP selection stitch up by the unions and now the Mc intervention it’s clear who thinks they run Labour. Combined with Milibands car crash interview and the admission that borrowing will rise, the next few weeks of polling will be interesting.

  4. Terry Casey says:

    If I remember before the last election Cameron and the rest of his party refused point blank to give any of their policies away citing the very reasons Miliband wont give his.
    What I would like to see from any new Government is to stick to their manifestos made prior to an election rather than change it completely when they get into power.
    McCluskey spoke for himself rather than his members and the Labour Party rightly put him in his place, The unions are natural allies of Labour as big business is to the Tory Party, the demonisation by this government of the Unions is a very clever attack not only on the Unions themselves but on the Labour Party which is their main aim.
    Miliband has been tied by the word Debt, he is afraid the population will turn its back against them if they say they will borrow, many lies have been repeated about debt and we now fear it above all other problems. I would like to ask what would Attlee have said after the war when our debt was far worse, If he had said we can’t go further into debt to build homes for hero’s or to get industry working again, Miliband has to be brave and bite the bullet or this country will gradually get worse, we will once again see our Hospitals and schools crumbling, housing costs get even more expensive, rather than penalise our people we need another homes for hero’s type building programme which would automatically bring down any housing benefits. In the present situation we are borrowing more and more and just stagnating, get people working on infrastructure, whatever it costs comes back to the treasury through taxes, VAT and not having to pay out benefits, we need our people working in proper jobs not the short time, no hour contracts people have to accept these days.

  5. John says:

    Region are only interested in Target wards, which is fair enough, but they then let constituencies with fairly low Labour majorities ,get complacent and subsidise them, rather than getting them to get their councillors to co fund campaigns, or encourage them to fund raise, and then the local parties with Labour M.P.s don’t campaign the way they should,panic come election time and get money from region to throw at adverts and paying people to deliver leaflets ,rather than getting the members too ,And then they starve constituencies that could win Labour councillors ,when those constituencies don’t get anything from region,a nd through membership subs, it’s those constituencies that fund other areas who sponge off them, It is to Quote Mrs Thatcher, a socialist disease, Old Labour is happy to spend other people’s money

  6. Renie Anjeh says:

    @Terry Casey – bite the bullet, and lose the election. Ed Miliband won’t be able to give into McCluskey because of the ‘Blairite seducers’ are close around him – Alexander being in his inner circle. There is the possibility it will lead to war with McCluskey, but I doubt his members will allow him to stop paying to Labour as I doubt he does not speak for them either.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Swatantra: Delighted though I would be about OMOV in Labour, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, as we would be asking unions to fund Labour in return for no say in anything. What we do need is more broad-based funding. Although that is more easily said than done, it would be good if we could not see business sponsorship and high value donations as intrinsically evil. There was a good and correct argument that Labour got too close to business; however, the wrong conclusion drawn was that somehow that was linked to party funding. In fact, the influence gained by unions from their donations shows a clear (and pretty much overt) linkage.

    @Ex-Labour: I think I’d agree on the polling.

    @Terry: I have written elsewhere that more debt may *possibly* be required, and possibly not. But I think the problem has been poor management of that message rather than the message itself.

    @Renie: I’m afraid you overestimate the democratic accountability within the average trade union. The voting is carried out by a small proportion of members, who also tend to be the more radical ones. I think those members who actually vote would probably support him, although the rank and file might well disagree.

    For the record, turnout in the last Unite leadership election was 15.2%: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Len_McCluskey

  8. Danny says:

    I’ve been looking forward to Rob Marchant’s reply ever since I read Len McCluskey’s intervention.

    As a leader of Unite, he is quite right to be concerned at any move from the party to revert back to the unsustainable and disastrous policies of New Labour, as they had a largely detrimental impact on unions and their members. He would not be doing his job as the elected leader of Unite if he did not use his position and influence to prevent the remaining Blairite politicians from steering the party in the same direction that contributed in no small part to our country’s inability to recover swiftly from the financial crisis as well as the widening wealth gap.

    I think Labour party members should be more concerned that Tony Blair’s rebuttal was not more aggressive in its tone.

    If the unions are the axis of evil and if collective strength of the workforce uniting to ensure fair pay and safe, comfortable working conditions is so bad, why don’t you Progress-types give your messiah Tony a nudge and get him to dip into his deep, deep pockets and help the party with its funding. He wouldn’t miss a few tens of millions of pounds from all his big-business schmoozing and questionable consultancy gigs with human rights abusers. Still, the Kazakh government shoot strikers, so they can’t be all that bad can they, hey Rob?

    Did the policy, “workers should shut up and do what their wealthy employers tell them rather than unite into collective groups to help ensure fair pay and conditions” make it into the Purple Manifesto, or whatever it is you guys are calling it, Rob?

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Danny: I don’t know how we got from disagreement with one union leader (or two, if you count GMB) to “axis of evil”, but they’re your words, not mine. Personally I believe that a strong link between the two benefits both, but hey.

    Yes, the disastrous policies of New Labour that got us elected – three times. That really was disastrous, if only we could stay in glorious opposition a bit longer, eh? Still, you may just get your wish, if this little game continues.

  10. Isidoros Diakides says:

    Surely a debate, with party members arguing for alternative courses at this stage (ie whilst in opposition and preparing for the next elections in a couple of years time), is a healthy (and necessary even) thing? Shouldn’t we all listen to each other’s views with respect and open mind, arguing in a comradely and civilised manner rather than unleashing virulent attacks on anyone amongst us who has expressed a view with which we happen to disagree? So poor Len was, allegedly, a few decades ago a militant sympathiser and one of his deputies is allegedly a communist sympathiser, who is (horror) opposed to the war on Iraq! What’s that got to do with anything?

    Surely an issue in the current debate is the uneven response of our leader to two key party figures who happened to express opposing views about the direction of our party, but in almost identical format? First Tony Blair issues out of the blue a criticism of the current leader’s approach, arguing that, despite being ahead in the opinion polls by c10 points, the party will lose the election unless it returns to the Blairite/New Labour principles. Then Len MvCluskey, effectively reacting to Tony Blair’s argument, argues the opposite, ie that Labour will lose the next election if it returns to the “discredited” Blairite/NL principles. What’s wrong ith that?
    You can argue that both are trying to push the party in their direction and also that both chose an inconvenient moment to do so (ie just before the local elections) and even, for the more paranoid amongst us, that both statements are probably containing veiled threats. Since when did we bocome a fascist or a stalinist party where anyone who dares express an independent opinion is treated as the enemy within?
    Interestingly enough Ed Milliband chose to react to the first one with respect and to the second one with contempt.
    I would personally like to know whether this means that, despite his popular image (ie distancing himself from the worst aspects of New Labour) that clearly secured his election as a leader and which has undoubtedly helped the party climb on the opinion polls, he is in reality a crypto-Blairite at heart, the rest being just PR; or is he really scared of the power and capacity to damage the party of the Blairite beasts? If it’s the first, then good luck to him. But if it is the second I would like to know and to try and help him in any way I can.

    Finally, I would like to take issue with constant undermining of Ed Milliband’s leadership. He had an uncomfortable interview, where he refused to disclose at this stage more than he was prepared to, and avoided to reveal certain aspects and details of the party’s economic policy so far ahead of the elections. What’s wrong with that? Opposition leaders and prime ministers in waiting, across the western world and since time immemorial, do that for usually good tactical reasons. Shouldn’t we, the party members, support him publicly, (even if we think that he had a bad interview), instead of joining with the conservatives and their press in criticising him in print with such viciousness (“car crash interview”, “excruciating”, “naked in the chamber” … need I say more?).


  11. Richard T says:

    ” I would like to ask what would Attlee have said after the war when our debt was far worse”

    He’d have said: Crikey, that’s a lot of debt. We’d better run some budget surpluses.

  12. Danny says:

    And here it is again. The one thing the right of the Labour Party cling to. “We won three general elections”. So did Thatcher, does that mean we should look to replicate her as well?

    A government should be judged by its long term consequences and not by the number of years it spends in office. A Labour government should be judged by its long term consequences for society’s most vulnerable. Whilst some good was done in the 13 years of New Labour, it’s legacy is a country poorly equipped to recover from a global financial crisis, an illegal war and an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. It created the opportunity for the well-off to get rich and the rich to get filthy rich. The poor? Well, they can stay poor. It was a government concerned more with courting the likes of Rupert Murdoch than hard-working, low-paid employees who make up a significant portion of the union’s membership.

    Still, who cares? It won three elections!

    Unfortunately, I don’t view politics as a sport where winning an election is tantamount to a goal and a 100 plus majority is a whitewash.

    Getting Labour elected is not my ultimate desire. Making society a more just, fair and prosperous place for all is. I believe a Labour government is the best way for that to be achieved. But not if it panders to the Blairites in the shadow cabinet or the self-titled “think-tank” Progress (there are far, far better descriptions). Succumbing to that section of the party would be the truly awful prospect. Making concessions for organisations made up of millions of workers that exist to protect those workers is far, far more desirable in the quest for a fairer Britain.

  13. John Reid says:

    This article has been called ,scraping the barrel and venom, on leftfutures

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    @Isidoros: a tad disingenuous, if you don’t mind me saying. While you’re suggesting that we should all be nice to each other – a respectable aim, by the way – you are missing the elephant in the room: that McCluskey was hardly expressing a gentle difference of opinion on policy. He was asking for three members of the Shadow Cabinet to be sacked. I do not remember Tony Blair asking for some of the more left-wing members of the Cabinet to be sacked, or anything remotely comparable.

    Btw, the things you label “allegedly” are not “allegedly” but facts, I’m afraid (if you disagree, by all means come back with some counter-evidence).

    Your last paragraph seems to conclude that any criticism of the party or the leadership is disloyal. I agree that people should be civil in their criticism, but not that they should not criticise. I’m afraid I think the opposite: if we expect cheerleading, we end up only with groupthink, which helps no-one. I said Miliband’s interview was a car-crash, not to be tough on Miliband (I’m sure he can take it) because that was the almost universal opinion of the commentariat afterwards and I strongly suspect that his own advisers told him the same.

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