by Rob Marchant
While we all want the morning of 8 May, 2015 to be defined by a triumphant Miliband glad-handing a crowd of jubilant supporters in Downing Street, it is worth taking a moment for a cold, hard look at the opposite: the Armageddon scenario of Labour returning to opposition.
Although this may be seen as a distasteful or even a disloyal task, neither is it, if the direction of travel of poll lead continues, one that is unthinkable in an election still far too close to call. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.
What will surely weigh heavily in the minds of all the major players at that point are the desires of one man, who over the last couple of years has shown himself to be the party’s trickiest stakeholder. That man is Len McCluskey.
While the furore of the Falkirk selection disaster has died down and the party reform agenda has largely gone through for the long term, Unite has been quietly preparing itself for a post-election world. It seems fairly obvious that, should Labour win, the chances of a split with Unite look remote; it would be a short route to instant marginalisation. As Prime Minister, Miliband could afford to face down a little union cage-rattling, and potentially even expand his party reform agenda.
But were Labour to lose – and presuming losing were deemed a “hanging offence” for the current leader, though we should not rule out, by the way, that Miliband might not look to hang on as a unity candidate –there would be a leadership election in which, as Uncut has observed before, it would be politically impractical to preclude unions from taking part “in the old way”. That is, such that candidates would need to court them just as they did before the Collins reforms. McCluskey would, at this point, have three important levers at his disposal.
One is obvious: as with all major union leaders, his cheque-book. The party would inevitably be “post-election broke”. It would be too early to have removed the affiliation fees entirely as a source of income; the new system would only have been in place a few months; traditional pressures could be brought to bear.
But, in the case of Unite, there is a crucial, second lever; only a few weeks ago, McCluskey made a direct challenge to Miliband; that if he was not in agreement with the party post-election, then he might look to found a new one. On the one hand, it would be a self-defeating act if ever carried out but, on the other, it would be powerful as a threat: to split the party in the very moment that it most needed unity; after a defeat.
A sort of half-crazed, “if you don’t back me, I’ll kill us all” kind of a threat. But a real one.
And there is now a third lever: a further push to the left within Unite’s own membership will mean solid backing from within. The source of this push? Merger with PCS. It is becoming increasingly clear that Unite will be integrating with the non-affiliated, public-service union PCS, sooner rather than later.
PCS, led by the pugnacious Mark Serwotka, is not a particularly large union; but it is one with a supremely active membership, unlike sleepy Unite. As party people know from painful experience, It only takes a handful of highly-motivated, hard-left activists – which the PCS core clearly are – to take over a union which is already controlled by only a handful of its number.
Those who think this sounds like exaggeration are invited to read this piece at Left Futures on the recent elections to the Unite executive. What stands out is the pitifully low proportion of the membership who get involved: the percentage of them who voted for each winning candidate was uniformly in low single figures.
Therefore, PCS will not only punch well above their weight in the new organisation but, if Unite had not yet completed its decisive turn to the hard left under McCluskey, it certainly would with PCS on board.
Neither do PCS activists have the affection for Labour which many Unite members do and one imagines that they would be more than happy to found a new party (indeed, it has been regularly proposed at their conferences that they stand their own candidates against Labour).
So, by next year, we would expect all this to be nicely in place. Given his pretty clearly-stated intentions, it seems unlikely that McCluskey would not seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as kingmaker for an all-or-nothing push to the left. And all during the power vacuum of a leadership interregnum.
One of Miliband’s undoubted achievements in 2010 was to keep his party more or less united. But in the event of a 2015 loss, the result looks more likely to be a political bloodbath.
For voters, a less edifying spectacle than Labour engaged in a renewed, public struggle with its “loony left” is difficult to imagine. We should not forget that, after the pitched battles of the mid-80s, it still took Labour more than a decade to return to power.
In short, there is a real danger for Labour that political circumstances may just be aligning themselves into a perfect storm, ready to break loose in the event of a defeat.
Ergo it seems we have, albeit perhaps unwittingly, rather bet the farm on winning.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left