In the battle for post-Miliband Labour, Unite’s leadership fights from a position of weakness, not strength

by Rob Marchant

When you are on the back foot, play the victim. The underdog. Under attack from the establishment. If they ask awkward questions, do not accept the premise of the question. Thus has the hard left defended itself against any kind of rational criticism based on mere facts, for decades.

In a remarkably disingenuous, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece at LabourList entitled “Setting the record straight over Unite’s position in Scotland”, Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scottish General Secretary, writes how Unite tried to save Scottish Labour…but they wouldn’t listen. If only they’d listened to us. Instead, an unnamed “some in the Labour Party” are trying to “attack” Unite. Poor things.

Honestly, what rubbish. Unite was part of the problem, not the solution. At the root of Labour’s wipeout was the parlous state of Scottish Labour. The end result of decades of hegemonic machine politics, of which Unite was an integral part. An overbearing, one-horse town politics on which the carpet was lifted in the debacle that was the Falkirk selection, where the union was accused of manipulating the vote. A debacle that, let us not forget, led directly to the biggest-ever shakeup in Labour’s relationship with unions.

No, it was that, and the SNP’s gradually building itself as a credible alternative government to that Labour hegemony, which lost Scotland’s Westminster seats. Not a sudden surge of nationalism. Many of the SNP’s voters do not even want independence and, should we still need reminding, No won the referendum, not Yes.

But with so much managed from Holyrood, Westminster is now a throwaway election for many Scots, much as the Euros have come to be for much of the rest of Britain. A place to register protest. And they did.

Scottish voters also saw how Unite’s disastrous bluster came close to destroying thousands of jobs in a dispute at the country’s only oil refinery in 2013, only to end up with a worse deal for their members than that originally on the table. According to YouGov, half of the Scots surveyed thought Unite’s actions at Grangemouth were wrong. The convenor? Step forward Stevie Deans, chair of, er, Falkirk CLP.

After all that, who in Scottish Labour would be a friend to Unite now? No wonder they selected Jim Murphy over the Unite-backed Neil Findlay, and the union itself is hinting at backing the SNP in future, rather than Labour. And after helping pile on the pressure to oust Murphy, against the wishes of his own Executive, Unite must surely realise that the game is up: that Scottish Labour, like much of Labour nationally and many of the union’s own members, is heartily fed up of its current leadership.

Away from Scotland, there was then another disingenuous LabourList piece, this time from Jennie Formby, Unite’s Director of Politics, trying to rebut some reasonable criticisms of the union by the Director of the Progress think-tank, Richard Angell.

“…he omits to record that Len McCluskey spoke out, on behalf of Unite, against any such proposal.  That is because our union believes in debate and in fighting the battle of ideas…

Clearly, Richard is not overwhelmed by gratitude, since he singles Unite and its General Secretary out for aggressive criticism.”

“Aggressive”; ah, the victim card again. And Angell, it seems, was terribly ungrateful: he was supposed to thank Unite’s leadership for not joining in the GMB’s calls to outlaw his organisation. How very dare he.

Then there was the hotly-denied report from Barry Sheerman MP of “pressurising MPs” in the Commons, with MPs asked to ensure some candidates didn’t reach the nominations threshold.

Okay, public perceptions of politicians may be at a historic low, and they do make mistakes, but do we genuinely think that an MP would just make this up, which is what Unite seems to be suggesting?

And then – ironic, that a union supposedly dedicated to “the battle of ideas” should crudely try to to silence its critics – Unite’s leadership arranges a lawyer’s letter to threaten one of Fleet Street’s most decent journalists, Nick Cohen, for daring to speak his mind about them (Cohen and his editor, Fraser Nelson, rightly sent them packing).

Finally, let us not forget how Andrew Murray, Unite’s chief of staff, said he brought “a message of support from our general secretary, Len McCluskey” to a Tower Hamlets rally for disgraced ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman. A move that McCluskey hastily rowed back from when he realised it placed him amongst fools and loons;  supporting a man whom an electoral court had stripped of office, after finding against him on charges of vote-rigging.

Hmm. Not a good look for Unite, that. Not after Falkirk.

Look how the last few weeks have seen a wave of self-justification and self-defence (usually in the form of attack) from Unite. Are these – as the Tory press loves, wrongly, to imply – the actions of a dominant, self-confident union, securing exactly what it wants from the party?

Or a desperate one, clinging on to its last vestiges of influence, even as it pours huge amounts of money into Labour for ever-diminishing returns?

The question is: how much can it really influence the leadership campaign, the big political play of the day? Uncut has written how the process could conceivably be got around, and that possibility remains to be disproved: but let us assume for a moment that Labour HQ has made it sufficiently tight. The answer may then be, surprisingly little.

If you still think that the union is fighting from a position of strength, think about this. Who would have ever thought that Labour-union relations could come to this, a real possibility of a leadership election where the candidates might not even want the support of Britain’s largest union?

Andy Burnham, already having spurned its money, now has a difficult choice: does he still openly seek Unite’s nomination and risk it damaging his campaign irreparably, as the press cast him as a McCluskey stooge? Or does he eschew it and hope that he can manage without the union’s backing, thus potentially diminishing his desired broad coalition among members?*

Assertion: Unite’s political support is now largely a liability, not an asset. Not just in the country: even in much of the Labour Party, whose members, we should not forget, voted for David Miliband in 2010. Politically, Unite needs the party to lend it credibility much more than the other way around.

Ergo, the only thing it has to offer Labour is money. The leadership campaigns, and the party, would be well-advised to starve rather than accept it. That, after all, was the whole point of Miliband’s reforms.

* There is also a third option: don’t ask for an open endorsement but get behind-the-scenes help anyway. But this is probably not sustainable:  people aren’t stupid.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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18 Responses to “In the battle for post-Miliband Labour, Unite’s leadership fights from a position of weakness, not strength”

  1. Madasafish says:

    In my view teh troubles of Labour in Scotland were far wider. Complacency and incompetence were rife in all Labour politics.. When a Red Rosette meant you could elect a donkey as a Labour candidate, you got some donkeys who were frankly useless.. And they also employed their families..

    So there was a resistance to any change…because sinecures were threatened by change.

    My brother lives in Scotland near Glasgow.. a former industrial town.

    The Council had been Labour run for decades… it had deteriorated so much that the council was a discussion shop.. nothing concrete was ever done.

    About 15 years ago, the first SNP councillors were elected and eventually the SNP ran the council.. Things actually got done… The Council DID things..

    The Conservatives were nearly made extinct in Scotland due to the Party kowtowing to London..(see the Poll Tax).. So did Labour learn? Nope.. It continued to run Scotland as a Branch Office with no power.

    So I contend Labour’s problems were even deeper than this article suggests..

  2. John P Reid says:

    Ed Miliband positioned himself as being a rejection of new labour,OK new labour was over by 2008′ but Ed never said what the alternative was, it really was just old labour, atom Watson may be admirable for his work with unite, labour first, but he too has built a career in the last 8 and a half years as rejected new labour,and I dint see his success as being any different to Ec Milibands, why does he think he’d be more successful.

  3. SimonB says:

    Given the wealth of the Tories are you really seriously saying Labour would be better off without Unite’s funding? Do you think that would benefit the membership of either the union or the party?

    McCluskey is the problem and that’s where the focus should be. And Dave Prentis at Unison should get some flack for sheer bloody uselessness.

    This piece reads like a university essay because it’s full of big ideas but completely fails to relate to millions of real people. The failing of much of the Left in a nutshell.

  4. steve says:

    Well said, Rob.

    As always, you hit the nail right on the head.

    The Labour Party should end its relationship with the trade unions forthwith. Without trade union interference the Labour Party will be in a position to offer pro-business policies under a pro-business leader (Liz Kendall, hopefully). Once this happens I’m sure the private sector will be happy to contribute to the Labour Party and will, at the very least, match the trade union contributions of the past.

  5. Tafia says:

    Labour’s problem is actually one of identity.

    It’s supposed to be pro-Union, but half the voters in Scotland (nearly all left-leraning) are opposed to the Union. If Plaid in Wales had got another 1850 votes across three other constituencies it would have taken another three seats.

    It’s supposed to be pro Trades Union but again huge chunls of the union membership no longer wish to fund Labour and don’t vote Labour. (Union membership in Scotland is collapsing nearly as fast as Labour membership and the SNP are even toying with setting up rival unions)

    It’s supposed to be pro-EU but again huge chunks of what should be it’s natural support – blue collar workers and socio-economic groups CD now vote UKIP.

    It has no ‘Labour’ identity anymore, it’s no longer the only left leaning party in town and what should be it’s core vote is voting for a right wing party. It doesn’t get on wcomfortably with the unions. Even the name ‘Labour’ no longer conjures the right image for the people who vote for it.

    Some major re-positioning and re-branding is required. And Alistair Campbell hit the nail on the head when he said the new leader should be given just three years to sort things and if after that they haven’t, they should be removed. Wonder who Burnham’s replacement will be?

  6. Well there we go. It was Unite and the machine politics of the Scottish Labour party that done it. Funny wasn’t it that same machine politics that elected Rob’s mate Jim Murphy? Of course Rob’s article would have been so much better if Murphy had turned the tide and Progress had won all before it, saving the seats of their members like Murphy and Douglas Alexander in the process.

    But hell, why bother with the truth if it doesn’t fit the story, eh Rob? We can say that the Scottish core vote drifted away because of Falkirk, that they voted for the SNP because Labour was too left wing. Say it enough Rob, and you may be able to convince yourself at least.

    For me it still looks like the utter rejection of New Labour by the Scottish electorite. Each to their own I guess.

  7. Robert says:

    I am a member of Unite who is not a fan of the current leadership. This does not affect my view that Labour’s links with the trade unions are good for both of them. Does Rob agree?

    Lke most members of Unite I care far more about what Unite does for me at work, for example, getting higher pay rises than if there was not a union in my workplace.

  8. Gary Hills says:

    Labour needs to find news ways of being funded as this money is being tainted due to how McCluskey thinks he and only he should decide Labour policy. I do think Unions are important and have a place. But they are not a political party and should not try to be one. McCluskey goes too far and there is far to much background interference of who is a candidate in Labour. Not just in the leadership race but all key seats in general.

    I want to see Unions representing people in the workplace and fighting for better conditions, I do not however want to see them using money as a form of blackmail and making out its their candidates or no candidate. I have no time or respect for that and I have seen far to much of the dark side of Unions to be fooled into believing it does not go on.

    Labour can rebuild and be strong again before 2020 but it must be free to have candidates free in thought and ability. Id much rather not a single candidate took money from the Unions. Despite I know how expensive things are but new ways of campaigning should be made. It should not have to cost so much these days. The Net should be used more and recorded videos and more live net hustings. Perhaps that will mean the candidates visit less CLPs and produce less leaflets. But at least they will not have signed their life away to the Unions.

    The Unions need Labour in Government and no matter what McCluskey says that is the reality. And despite the spin they will not get anywhere with no other party. Yet they need to re-find a balance so their demands are fair and not seen as the only view. McCluskey is quick to forget the Labour Party is a political party to represent all in society, not just Lens view. And that is the point the wider public are not in agreement in all Len says and he loses the party votes.

    The union link is important but the Union barons must stop assuming their view is more important. Labour is the only party that will produce policy that will help working people on the scale the Unions want. Yet that is not the same as saying it should be the only policy created. Labour has to speak for the widest amount of people because if it does not it loses election. Which is what has just happened. So the Union view is outdated and would be a an electoral disaster if the party only did want the Unions want.

    A new language and balance that is needed in this relationship. One built on fairness but realistic views. And more rules government selection so Unions do not have a blanked say.

    If the Unions want to encourage candidates to come forward to ensure they can afford the contest. Then they should put money into a pot so all who want to stand can access it. So the backing of individual candidates should end as then it would be truly fair. Unions can still get its views known but democratically in debates within the party. Not in candidates on being elected made to vote only the way the unions want just because they needed funds to win.

    The relationship has to change and the Unions must no interfere with who is the be the leader of the Labour party. I wish McCluskey would go, he is a hindrance to proper debate in the UK and in the party. He is a relic of the past and just a trouble maker. You do not win better conditions for working people by dictating to the Labour party and using money as a means of blackmail.

    Unite members do not all think like McCluskey but he makes out they do. Its time the Unions renewed themselves to be relevant to where the wider public are, or their membership will keep struggling to grow. Labour has to find a new direction to make it be heard again with the public, the Unions need to do the same.

  9. Ian says:

    I recently, and reluctantly, cancelled my Unite membership, largely in protest at the disgraceful antics of McCluskey and his allies. The membership fees of ordinary working people keep Len in the manner to which he’s become accustomed and I won’t be contributing any longer. Labour should bite the bullet and break free from the malign influence of these relics of a bygone age. Hard decisions need to be made before we are saddled with another union endorsed leader who will lose in 2020.

  10. swatantra says:

    I am a member of Unite, and agree with Ian.

  11. Landless Peasant says:

    If Miliband had backed strike action against Austerity Labour would. have got.my. vote

  12. John P Reid says:

    Ian’s right, many unions aren’t affiliated, but one give personal donations

  13. Tafia says:

    Landless Peasant If Miliband had backed strike action against Austerity Labour would. have got.my. vote

    And how many more votes would it have lost? Your vote isn’t wanted if it means that more are lost as a result of getting it. ‘Positioning’ – there’s a nice word.

  14. Landless Peasant says:

    @ Tafia

    Labour lost. I think the proof is in the pudding, don’t you? If Labour had put up more of a fight against the Tory scum they may have been in number 10 now. They did nothing to oppose Gideon’s ideological austerity or the welfare reforms. I’d sooner vote for SNP , GREEN, orSinn Fein than useless Labour.

  15. Henrik says:

    @Tafia – old matey Landless Peasant is very strongly of the opinion that the Labour Party should move Left to embrace him. He may well be right, if the party prefers splendid ideological purity on the freezing tundra of the unpopular left to a lotus-eating pragmatism in the sunny meadows of the centre, it’ll get to be sanctimonious and self-righteous in Opposition for the next 20 years.

  16. Tafia says:

    So pray tell me Landless Peasant, bearing in mind Labour lost the election because it was absolutely stamped on in England, pray tell me how moving leftwards will take swing voters from the Tories and UKIP? Because that’s where you’ve got to win them from.

    Being left works in Scotland and Wales – although the brand of ‘left’ that is favoured in Scotland is not of the Labour variety and in Wales Labour , despite being more left than England Labour and bragging as such, is in slow decline and Plaid were only 1850 votes away from taking three Labour MPs seats.

  17. John P Reid says:

    Landless Peasant ,what makes you think labour wants your vote, they want the millions of Ex labour who voted Ukip, Tory last time, and calling Tories scum,isn’t exactly going to achieve that, as for your backing for Sinn Fein, they don’t turn into parliament

  18. @Robert: Actually, I do agree. No problem with links, just need to be modernised. It is fine for unions to be involved in funding and running the Labour Party. It is not ok for them to stitch up selections, or indeed have a stranglehold over the selection process. Like most people, my problem is with the current batch of leaders rather than unions in general.

    @Ian, Swatantra: I suspect that Unite may jump before they are pushed.

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