Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Why McCluskey tried to bully moderates last week and why it didn't work

Wes Streeting (left), one of the five MPs attacked by McCluskey, among the
group who escorted Ruth Smeeth MP to the hearing of Marc Wadsworth,
who left her in tears at the launch of the Chakrabarti Report
A week ago, the leader of Britain's largest union, Unite, decided to wade into the anti-Semitism debate with size 10 boots on and have a very personal go at five named MPs. Essentially, he clearly hadn't got the memo from Corbyn where he accepted that the party really did have a problem with anti-Semitism and tried to cling onto the idea that it was a "smear", whipped up to destabilise the Dear Leader. He then went further, saying these MPs would be "held to account" (translation: deselected). It was a serious misreading of the gravity of the situation, in terms of both media and the party's representatives.

Firstly, kudos to the MPs concerned: Chris Leslie, John Woodcock, Wes Streeting, Neil Coyle and Ian Austin. All five of them are people I have met at least briefly over the years, and they are all decent and politically sound, especially on this touchstone issue (yes Ian, I have moved on from the time you bawled me out over Gordon's laptop, or whatever it was).

You should all be proud to wear this threat as a badge of honour - you are being singled out, essentially, for defending Jews. Good on you. Right now, people need to stand up and be counted as a matter of honour.

It is also interesting that McCluskey chose not to attack another former colleague, John Mann who, as cross-party chair of the APPG on anti-Semitism, has a more powerful platform from which to counter-attack and who is not afraid of using it - as we saw when he carried out a pretty punchy verbal onslaught on Ken Livingstone following his "Hitler" comments, which probably helped lead to his suspension.

It is also interesting that no-one on the list was themselves Jewish, cleverly sidestepping any direct accusations of anti-Semitism. Neither were any women, for a similar reason. No, he decided to attack these vocal (non-Jewish, white, male) backbenchers on the grounds that he thought they were easier targets and that it might work to get the PLP in general to fall into line behind him.

He was wrong. Not only was he deftly counterattacked by frontbencher Keir Starmer, who insinuated he was "part of the problem" but, in fact, after something of a social media backlash, McCluskey later ended up having to "clarify" his comments (translation: apologise for). 

But why did he try and bully a few MPs in the first place? Why would he step in? Two reasons.

One: because he thought it would work. Wrong, but he must have thought that he could have some effect. This surely shows a serious lack of self-awareness. He is roundly disliked by most of the PLP, and those few by which he is not have already taken the Corbyn Kool-Aid and are on board with his views. Why make the attempt to preach to the converted or further alienate the haters? Which brings us to...

Two: because he felt more than a little desperate: that he might be drinking at the last chance saloon with regard to his current position in the party. This needs a little more explanation.

For one thing, he is clearly embroiled in a struggle to the death over the leadership of his union, thanks to losing candidate Gerard Coyne's legal challenge to the General Secretary election result. While Coyne may not succeed, he certainly has a fighting chance and this is surely making McCluskey feel more than a little embattled.

For another, he currently enjoys a probably unique position of political power in the history of British trade unionism - with the possible exception of Ernie Bevin, whose bust reportedly adorns his office. He is confronted with a weak leader, Corbyn, and a number of key figures around the leader, aligned to him, McCluskey. 

Most important of these is surely Jennie Formby, his employee until six weeks ago and also the mother of his child, with whom we imagine he still has a fairly close friendship. Formby is now General Secretary of the Labour Party, which means McCluskey will now have - via her - a bigger say on the party machine than pretty much any union leader in the past.

However, it is not at all impossible that the anti-Semitism scandal could bring down Corbyn, and there is now some serious speculation that this could happen in order to draw the sting. 

If Corbyn went, it seems almost inevitable that the heads would also be demanded of Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray (his Chief of Staff) and - most important of all - Formby, who has "previous" on downplaying anti-Semitism (we should note that in Unite she was a high-profile pro-Palestinian activist - although this is not an issue in itself, it usually is in far-left circles). If not, Corbyn would go and the problem would still not be adequately dealt with. So Formby would have to go, too (and this is pretty well-precedented behaviour with a change of leader anyway).

In other words, if Corbyn were to go, the most likely outcome would be that McCluskey would lose a significant amount of power, and that is if he even stayed General Secretary of his own union. And if there's one thing that Don Corleone might have taught us, it's that the reduction of power to those who crave it is a challenge that generally produces an immediate and brutal response.

It is therefore not surprising that he might choose to resort to apparently desperate threats to try and shore up Corbyn's position. Because if Corbyn goes, he likely goes back to being kept at arm's length, as he was during the Miliband years. That is, Labour's next General Secretary is unlikely to respond so quickly to a familiar Scouse voice at the other end of the phone. And that's gotta hurt.

UPDATE 15:55 02MAY - Sky News confirms that McCluskey did not actually write the piece, it was written by Andrew Murray, Unite Chief of Staff on loan to Corbyn's office. So that's kind of embarrassing, having an adviser to the Leader directly contradict him in print. It also shows how little attention the actual power brokers in Labour nowadays seem to pay to the Leader himself. But it still clearly came from Len's camp, defending its territory.

UPDATE 03 MAY: We should have course note that on Tuesday John Woodcock, one of the five, was suspended from the party, allegedly for sending inappropriate texts to a former aide. It was reported that, although the NEC had already decided that this was not a "hanging offence", there was a personal intervention from Formby to overturn this. So much for due process.

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