Miliband bags the Oscar, but McCluskey wins Best Supporting Leader

by Kevin Meagher

As he toured the television studios following Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday, Len McCluskey avoided the bear traps. He didn’t let the media frame his response. He was relaxed and reflective, positive, even, about the historic changes to party-union relations that had just been announced.

Producers will have wondered if they had booked the right Len McCluskey.

He didn’t really sound like the ogre we have been used to reading about; the fixer-in-chief wielding power and patronage to fulfil his diabolical scheme. Labour’s Dr. Evil running Unite from some disused volcano in a South Pacific island.

There was no finger-jabbing, or dark threats. Subtly made-over, McCluskey appeared before us in a snappy dark suit and designer specs, sporting a hint of designer stubble; more internet entrepreneur than industrial dinosaur.

He had decided to give Ed Miliband the boost he needed. There was no thumping return serve to the suggestion that union power should be diluted in the party. He lobbed the ball gently back across the net. The Leader’s speech was “very bold, very brave and could be historic” he said.

Encouraging ordinary trade unionists to become fully involved in the party was something he “unequivocally welcomed”. He pledged co-operation in now working out how the changes will take effect.

And then there was the accent. The Liverpool brogue does stridency brilliantly. But it has another setting: mellifluousness. ‘Len the Mellifluous’ is not what Daily Mail leader writers were expecting, but that’s what we got. It’s hard to characterise someone as a belligerent rabble-rouser when they speak softly and reasonably.

So a triumph of media training? That is too glib. McCluskey is a seasoned negotiator. You don’t get to be general secretary of the country’s biggest union without having different settings for different occasions.

Trade unionists are performers too. They know when to crank it up and when to tone it down. McCluskey risked being painted into a corner as a man of the past doing his best to kill Labour’s future.

At the same time, Miliband the Weak was unable to face up to the menace posed by Red Len and his Unite henchmen. This was a bloodbath in the making. And then, all of a sudden, the script was re-written.

Now all bent the knee to mighty King Ed. ‘Mellifluous’ McLuskey became ‘Magnanimous’ McCluskey. Even former ruler, King Tony, was wheeled out to offer fealty to his successor’s gallantry in winning a battle he had dared not fight himself. This wasn’t just a re-writing; it was a Hollywood ending.

But this story is only the first instalment. Will King Ed’s soaring rhetoric on the battlefield, which floated across the mountain tops, echo down in the canyons and crevices beneath where the battle will actually be fought?

But that’s for the sequel. This week Ed Miliband scooped the honours, justly. But, against the odds, Len McCluskey also scooped a trophy for Best Supporting Leader.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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