Thursday, 2 May 2013

A dangerous game

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 Communist Party of Britain. 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.


This post first published at Labour Uncut, and selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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