The Tories' attack on the unions lacks credibility

The Conservative claim that Unite has taken over the Labour Party is absurd.

Here is the new poster the Conservatives have just released, attacking Labour's financial links with Britain's largest trade union, Unite.

It's part of a fierce assault on the union this morning, with the Tories also launching an attack document on the subject and Michael Gove delivering a speech on "Charlie Whelan's new militant tendency".

Brown poster

The Tories aren't wrong to point out Labour's increasing financial dependency on the unions. Last year unions were responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party, with Unite alone accounting for 25 per cent (£3.6m). But isn't this all rather nauseating, coming from a party that for so many years was sustained by the non-domiciled Michael Ashcroft?

As I've argued before, there is no comparison between the donations Labour receives from Unite's political fund (to which nearly 1.3 million members voluntarily contribute) and the millions the Tories receive from Ashcroft, a man who has sat in the legislature for nearly a decade without having the decency to become a full UK taxpayer.

Gove's claim that Labour's political strategy is now dictated by the unions isn't much more convincing. Here's a key passage:

Class warfare has not only been resurrected; it has been elevated to holy principle, used in every possible circumstance including, most famously, in vicious, aggressive and direct attacks from a prime minister who purports to govern in the national interest.

His description of Gordon Brown's rather amusing joke about "the playing fields of Eton" as "vicious, aggressive and direct" is absurd and delusional.

The party's decision to list the 108 MPs who belong to Unite, as if this proves that the party has been infiltrated by a hard-left sect, is equally laughable. It ignores that almost every Labour MP is obliged to belong to a union (after all, the party was founded by them).

Thus, ludicrously, Alan Milburn is at once "outed" as a member of Unite, while also being cited by Gove as a New Labour reformer who has quit parliament in horror at the rise of the unions.

But the Tories, for whom the looming British Airways strike is a political gift, aren't concerned with such objections: they've got an election to win. And today, buoyed by the latest polls and the European Commission's criticism of the government's deficit strategy, they've put Labour on the back foot for the first time in weeks.

Labour should respond not only by pointing out the contradictions I've outlined, but also by arguing that the Tories are rather more vulnerable to the charge of offering policies for cash.

As my colleague James Macintyre pointed out last year, a number of major Tory donors stand to gain more than £500,000 each from Cameron's plan to slash inheritance tax. Labour now needs to go on the attack -- and soon.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.