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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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