Tuesday, 18 May 2021

The poisonous McCluskey era thankfully draws to a close

It’s not really been a good week for Len McCluskey, has it? A mere three months away from stepping down, it does seem the once-irresistible grip of him and his Unite faction on the Labour Party is fading fast.

First there was the Anna Turley libel case, whereby the union is now forced to pay its portion of an astonishing £1.3m to the former Redcar MP, for an article published on the Unite-backed Squawkbox blog (and one imagines that the piece’s writer, Steve Walker, will not be able to contribute very much to the sum, if anything).

And who should be in charge of legal affairs at Unite, responsible for keeping it out of such legal trouble?

Why, the person who looks like McCluskey’s clear preference to succeed him as General Secretary, Howard Beckett, of course.

Yes, that Howard Beckett, demonstrably the most militant of the candidates, who has just been suspended from the Labour Party for a deeply unpleasant tweet about Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Good. Neither should we shed any tears for Beckett – and for clear reasons of decency, rather than because we dislike the political views he is perfectly entitled to hold. Beckett was – not unlike his parliamentary counterpart, former Party Chair Ian Lavery – embroiled in a scandal over the misuse of compensation payments to sick miners.

For that reason alone, frankly, neither man should ever have been allowed to rise in the ranks of the labour movement. But, in the strange and twisted world that was 2010s Labour politics, they were.

And last but emphatically not least on the list of McCluskey’s woes is the ongoing political meltdown in Liverpool, slowly dragging McCluskey’s name further and further into the mire.

Not only has it uncovered McCluskey’s links to the same property developers involved in the scandal but also his regular presence in Liverpool politics. A presence which, the Times this weekend has alleged in a powerful piece, was the subject of a whopping lie to Unite’s ruling body.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the Times’ use of the word “lie” in the headline. Those of us who have occasionally written controversial pieces for national newspapers know how many rounds you have to go with the lawyers to get that kind of wording approved. It seems hard to imagine that the Times would have published if there were not a rock-solid certainty that the litigious McCluskey could not successfully sue.

The unprecedented weakness of McCluskey and his principal sidekick, then, means that Labour is suddenly and unexpectedly at a point of inflection; perhaps a point of opportunity.

McCluskey, it is no exaggeration to say, has been right at the heart of the disastrous decade that Labour has just experienced.

From his election in 2010, he has been actively fighting moderate elements in the party. Despite its billing as a “people’s revolution”, it is unthinkable that Corbynism would have ever come to pass without McCluskey’s financial and organising muscle to back it.

His pet blogging outlets, Squawkbox and The Canary, as well as the more mainstream LabourList, have been central to creating the far-left echo-chamber which helped foster both anti-Semitism and crank policy . And his pockets were deep enough to support them when they were sued for being a little, er, economical with the actualité.

So the immediate suspension of Beckett was, in fact, a brilliant coup. There are very few moments when union figures such as Beckett and McCluskey are truly vulnerable, and that is invariably when they are running for office.

It is quite possible that Beckett’s suspension has dealt a death-blow to his campaign to be general secretary and, even in the unlikely event he were to win now, it would clearly be untenable for him to sit on the NEC, and Unite would surely end up disaffiliated (we should not forget that he led a petulant walkout from an NEC meeting last year, so it seems unlikely he would have many friends there).

So, barring a last-minute, panicky climbdown, it seems clear that Starmer will now not have to face Beckett, across the table either at the NEC or in a one-to-one meeting, for some time. If ever.

That leaves two possibilities: the first and “happy” path is that moderate Gerard Coyne wins; if, that is, the incumbent leadership can resist trying to stack the vote against him. This outcome would be a truly cathartic one for Labour; a final putting-to-rest of Unite’s toxic influence on the party for the last decade. Coyne has been for some time the only candidate actively trying to stop the corruption rife in the union. But the current regime has already tripled the threshold of required branch nominations to get on the shortlist, in a clumsy attempt to exclude him, and that alone may just work.

The second, and less happy, possibility is that either Steve Turner or Sharon Graham win. Starmer’s team apparently think they can “do business with” such leaders from the union’s left: but that was the mistake Miliband made. And watch them either or both sidestep further to the left, in the event that Beckett were to actually drop out.

Turner is essentially McCluskey, without the known grift; close to his boss and for many years his campaign manager. Despite his currently-professed “softly softly” stance with regard to dealings with Labour – presumably to distance himself from the more militant Beckett – it seems unlikely that he would be very different from McCluskey once in post.

Graham, on the other hand, is currently abusing the fact that she has a small army of full-time organising staff to blur the line between everyday work and, well, campaigning for her. She is also in charge of what nowadays Unite euphemistically called “leveraging”: as we saw via the Falkirk debacle of 2013, this essentially means going round to the homes of company management and intimidating them and their families. Anyone who thinks that is ok behaviour is unlikely to be a suitable partner for Labour.

Starmer does have a choice, of course: he could go for the “masochism strategy” of doing without Unite’s money until/unless they get a remotely palatable leader. But since Ed Miliband’s clumsy strategy of alienating business in the early 2010s, Labour has had virtually no business sponsorship nor high-value donations. So, this strategy would require Labour to truly strip itself down and rapidly develop other income sources, in order to survive financially.

However, in the event that anyone but Coyne wins, he might be wise to pursue that course anyway.

Right now, the stakes in a union leadership election have never been higher. A political Litvinenko, Labour has spent a decade being poisoned by Unite’s politics, just like the unfortunate intelligence officer at the hands of Russia’s FSB. If it is ever to fully recover, it needs must also be prepared for some drastic medicine.


This post first published at Labour Uncut
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