Unite’s takeover of PCS will have big implications for Labour if Ed doesn’t make it into Number 10

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.

No pressure.

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

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22 Responses to “Unite’s takeover of PCS will have big implications for Labour if Ed doesn’t make it into Number 10”

  1. John Reid says:

    Mcklusky, has Been giving contradictory signals for sometime,saying the Collins proposals were music to his ears,then,Allegedly getting a paid coach full of Young labour union members to turn upto the Young Labour meeting to use intimidation and block votes,to reject the idea,then he cut his donation to Labour by a million,
    Yes PCS is a small union and it’s union reps in the civil service,Police and the MOD,are un political, work for their members and are glad that it in affiliated,not in the same way the RMt and co, left labour over backing socialist parties,but the jobs it’s members do ,shouldn’t be associated with party politics,even if John McDonnell is it’s spokesman

    At one stage last year all 4 of the Honchurch,Upminster and Romford Labour parties Chairs and Secretaries were PCS reps,most of them on the right of the party,

    Mcklusky has said if Labour lose the election he’ll break away from labour, that doesn’t stop individual affiliations to both potential members or CLP’s, if the PCS does merge with unite, I can’t see, it happening ,but unite may leave as I don’t think after discussing with McDonnell the other day, that the PCS would affiliate with labour.

    Mark Serwotka is odd ,in that a union that represents police staff, has called for the lawful verdict of the Police mark Duggan shooting, to be overturned and When 7 UAF members were arrested for public order offences after clashing with the EDL, that they shouldn’t face the due process of the law, and be exonerated,

    Will it matter if unite leave labour, financially for a bit, yes, but that’s all.

  2. John Reid says:

    Having read the last paragraph, regarding a blood bath, I don’t think this’ll happen for 3 reasons,
    1theres not much of the party at grass roots left, even with the new generation coming in and being keen, it’s if anything, like the renewed momentum, labour got in the North in the 87 election, where, the loony left as you called them were ,mainly regarded as being, in Inner London councils, as such labour vote went up a lot up North at that election,but went down in London

    2 although Livingstone blamed the Blairites for him losing last year, if Ed loses next year and there those on the Centre left,who are annoyed and want someone else to blame for Ed not winning ,blaming the Blairites will fall on deaf ears, as the new ‘student’ style supporters now, haven’t got the base to be running the party,

    3 most of the PLP accept the more popular front bench members Stella Creasy, Gloria De piero, Andy Burnham, are on the right of Ed, and the moves by unite, to oust progress fell on deaf ears, look at the way, the CLPD, call , Livingstone Shawcrofts, and Kate osamor Centre Left!!, while calling Joanna Baxter, Ellie Reeves, and Peter Wheeler hard right, lol,

  3. John Reid says:

    Regarding it taking years after the 80’s battles for us too win, By 1997′ Labour for 9 years upto then hadn’t supported the banning of selling council homes, for 9 years by then hadn’t supported the closed shop, for 9 years by then hadn’t supported leaving the EU in a referendum,9 years by then hadn’t supported (re) nationalisation, 9 years by then hadnt supported a incomes policy, 9 years by then didn’t want the basic level of tax to be more then 25p, 9 years by then supported the temporary anti terrorism measures,9 years by then Tony Blair And Gordon brown had been on the front bench,9 years by then Ken Livingstone hadn’t been on the NEC(although he was soon to return)9 years by then didn’t support flying pickets, Hatton had been gone 9 years and by 97′ 4 years after OMOV, and the end of clause 4 and Scargills departure,

    It was the fact that Labour hadnt stood for the things in the 74,79 manifesto for 9 years before the 1997 manifesto ,which is the complete opposite of what we’d introduced 23 years earlier

    So when the 74 manifesto, that was so overwhelmingly rejected by the public in 1979′ there
    Was still a need for us to be able to stand in 97 with only 30% of our funding coming from the trade unions,never stood on

  4. paul barker says:

    As an ex-communist I have to say that you just dont get what McCluskey is at. Go back to McCluskeys last speech on Labour, a few weeks ago. Essentially he said he expected Unite to dissaffiliate unless Labour met 2 conditions- a big swing to the Left & outright victory in 2015.
    McCluskey is no fool, he knows perfectly well that those conditions are mutually exclusive. That sounds to me like the decision to break away has already been taken.

  5. bob says:

    Next election, vote Labour, get UNITE. How to turn an electorate off.

  6. Guest says:

    Apparently if McCluskey sets up a new “Workers’ Party” (should we lose the next election), 15 Labour MPs have agreed to defect. I always thought that this would be more likely if we win because a Labour government would have to make swingeing cuts and radical reforms that the Left would not be able to stomach. I blame Miliband for this.

  7. Tafia says:

    Bob – Next election, vote Labour, get UNITE. How to turn an electorate off.

    The Labour Party is supposed to be the political wing of the TUC – that’s how it got to being a major party from a fringe minority party in a matter of a few years in the early 20th Century. The unions provided it with offices, organisation, money, communication networks, meeting halls and above all boots on the ground. The reason it’s in the mess it is these days is because it has forgotten that and thinks it is above all that (apart from scrounging money). Without the unions it is nothing – whereas the unions can just go and bankroll another party instead.

  8. Guest says:

    @Tafia – This is the stuff of fantasy. The Labour Party is not supposed to be the political wing of the TUC – we don’t live in 1900 – it is meant to be a centre-left party of government. If it becomes a political wing of Unite, it will lose BIG TIME. The Labour Party is the child of the union movement but the child cannot keep on living in the parents’ house. It needs to grow up and leave home.

  9. bob says:

    Tafia says: All the public will see is McClusky, Serwotka et al ranting on and be totally turned off, remember the private sector is very poorly represented by any union, and if the public sector go on strike or disrupt services, see it as a cost saving.

    Remember the activities of Unite over Ineos, nearly lost many workers their jobs in a very depressed area, BASSA strike at BA, tried to destroy British Airways. Why do you think Labour never repealed an iota of the Conservatives union laws. they knew what would happen if they did.

  10. Tafia says:

    It needs to grow up and leave home.

    In that case it can do without union money then. Oh hang, it can’t. That isn’t fantasy that is reality.

    Bob – likewise. If they take union money but don’t deliver what the unions want then they serve no purpose to the unions and will lose their funding. Without it they will cease to exist as quite rightly the public will not accept state funding of parties and if they can’t support themselves then they have no God-given right to exist.

  11. Guest says:

    “In that case it can do without union money then. Oh hang, it can’t. That isn’t fantasy that is reality.”

    When Labour is popular, it can do with union money with strings because it’s donor base would increase. What really needs to happen is state funding for political parties so that the unions who give to us are doing so out of support not because they are trying to blackmail us.

  12. Guest says:

    *union money without strings attached

  13. John reid says:

    Tafia, fair point about losing union money, but with the opt in rather than opt out, if unions decide to fund other parties they’ll gave to ask members to opt in to supporting them ,the also don’t take into account, Individual affiliations ,or only 30% of Labours 1997′ election was funded by unions

  14. Tafia says:

    hat really needs to happen is state funding for political parties

    Absolutely not – under no circumstances. The public would turn on the political class far worse than the expenses scandal.

    We should move the other way. Political parties should not be allowed to have donations and should be forced to live off their membership fees. That way of they don’t attract people they will deservedly perish. They need to make themselves relevant – if they can’t or won’t then let them sink. A safety net of government (people’s) money is unacceptable – especially in their case.

    John – only 30% of Labours 1997′ election was funded by unions ‘Only’ 30%? how would they have co[ed without that 30% – they wouldn’t have.

  15. Rob Marchant says:

    @John: think we’ll have to agree to agree to disagree on bloodbath. If there is a split with Unite, which seems pretty likely, that could not happen without scars being left on the party. We would also probaly lose a few MPs to the new grouping (although, frankly, good riddance).

    @PaulBarker: I think you are right that McCluskey is smart, but exactly because of this he will not split if Miliband gets to be PM. He knows that would put him on the fringes of politics, a useless protest vote against a newly-powerful Labour.

  16. John reid says:

    Tafia, having been involved, I literally know that region have thrown down the drain about a third of the money they get, excluding things like gordon in Oct 2007 , having an election campaign prepared, costing 2 million only to bottle it last thing

  17. paul barker says:

    Again, I dont beleive McCluskey cares about whether Labour can form a government or not. The disagreement among Communists over whether to form a New Workers Party is about tactics not aims. The point about Unite laying down impossible conditions for Labour to meet is that they make no sense unless the decision to disaffiliate has already been taken.
    Its not the loss of income thats crucial, in the short-run; its the founding of a “Left UKIP” that will drain votes & activists away.

  18. Tafia says:

    Paul, I stopped voting Labour and quit the party because of Iraq. I had been a reluctant Labour voter for some years prior due to discomfort with Blair and his direction. I currently am a member of and vote for Plaid Cymru – but if a proper left wing workers party were to be founded by Unite I would be first in the queue to join up and I now many others likewise.

  19. Sam Wheeler says:

    @John reid

    That crack about Young Labour conference is a calumny, and the fact you believe such conspiracy theory nonsense does you no credit.

    On the wider point, this support for Grant Schapps’ “union barons” narrative from Mr Marchant and others is far more damaging to the party than Mr McCluskey’s doleful admition, when asked, that his membership might question what they got for their money if Labour lose the next election on an ‘austerity-light’ platform.

    Small parties die under FPTP. Of course another hung Parliament, particularly if four party politics in Britain becomes a reality, starts making FPTP unsustainable.

  20. John Reid says:

    Sam wheeler, when Renie First mentioned the alleged gerrymandering by unite of the young labour conference on here, I was very critical,after talking to my friend Alex Halligan I’m not so sure

    Regarding, Robs comment to he might be a civil war in labour if we lose, it reminds me of Tony Benns comment after the 83 election, we list as it wasn’t left wing enough,Benn having convinced the party that labour had lost in 79 as it wasn’t left wing enough, then had the longest suicide speech on history, when Neil Kinnock bravely took on militant,there’s was massive opposition, and as Shirley Williams noted in her autobiography, the general public, rightly felt labour was a more of an extremist party in 87′ than 83′, it’s worth noting. Due to what has been described by others as the London loony left, labour did worse in London in 87 election than the 83′ one, as such ,it could be argued that the fact the public, just felt in 83′ that we were all a it loony and out of touch, the view in 87′ was we were with the miners strikes, the 85 riots and welcoming the IRA with open arms to the GLC while they were trying to blow up the Tory conference, that we were indeed, more extreme, having Called Neil Kinnock, Ramsey Mckinnock etc,

  21. tajblue says:

    Anybody suggesting that McCluskey is going to set up a new left wing/Workers Party/Arthur Scargill type Socialist Party is barking! It is preposterous to believe that LM would desert the Premier League of British politics, where he has the best seat in the Directors Box, for the grind and graft of managing a non league outfit bereft of any decent players, management or staff. His ego couldn’t handle it, and anyway it would require a great deal of HARD WORK! Posturing and pontificating comes easy when all that’s required to win an election is the use of well paid full time officers to manipulate small cliques to secure your vote. Even then he was unable to persuade even 10% of his members to vote for his leadership. He’s well aware of his limitations and he’s going nowhere.
    It is however tragic that we see the Labour Party leadership running scared of third raters like McCluskey et al. All they represent is a 70s ideology that is dead everywhere bar the remaining husks of trade union activism. These areas have nothing to offer the party in terms of how to regain power. They have completely failed their membership in terms of providing effective representation and protection. Until Trade Unions can construct a model of activism that engages effectively with their membership and the wider public their only role will be to provide the likes of McCluskey and similar wastes of space with a platform and lifestyle they could never hope to attain outside the trade union womb.
    We need to establish a leadership that will see the links with deadbeats like McCluskey, Kenny et al clearly severed and the party established as a modern social democratic party free of vested interests, with unions supporting but not owning the party.

  22. Thomas M says:

    Well said Tafia !
    The historical union link with labour may well be inevitably broken. Either the unions reclaim labour armed with socialist policies or a break will likely occur out of the battle.

    If such a break did occur i’m with my fellow work men and women, not the political establishment of labour or its leadership. The same leadership which is alienating voters and can be blamed for support for UKIP.

    Instead of explaining the real cause of the problem of immigration, the current leadership has decided to get tough on it- even Blair is against this !!

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