McCluskey ignores the deficit that Osborne will leave

Nowhere does the Unite general secretary acknowledge the £79bn deficit that Labour would inherit.

"Union chief attacks Labour leader" is rarely a headline worthy of much attention but then Len McCluskey is not any trade union leader. As general secretary of Unite he leads the country's biggest trade union and Labour's biggest donor, responsible for a quarter of all donations to the party. And, lest we forget, had it not been for McCluskey's union, among others, David Miliband, not Ed, would now be wearing the crown.

But the younger Miliband has little to thank McCluskey for this morning. His article in today's Guardian is a full-frontal attack on the Labour leader and Ed Balls for their "embrace of austerity" and the government's public sector pay squeeze. Anti-cuts protesters, he writes, have been left "disenfranchised" by a Blairite "policy coup" that threatens Miliband's leadership.

To which Balls and Miliband should reply, we have changed our mind because the facts have changed. The failure of George Osborne's plan means that, based on Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, the next government will inherit a deficit of £79bn. As growth continues to fall below target, this figure will continue to soar upwards. Yet nowhere in his piece does McCluskey acknowledge this new fiscal reality. Ball's statement that the "starting point" for Labour (note the wriggle room) is "we're going to have to keep all these cuts" is simply an acknowledgement that the country has a lot less money than it thought. Labour cannot credibly pledge not only to avoid further cuts if elected in 2015 (Osborne would stretch his into 2017) but to reverse those that have already been made.

Contrary to what McCluskey writes, the shadow chancellor has not embraced "deficit reduction through spending cuts". He continues to oppose both the speed and the scale of the coalition's cuts, warning that they mean a reduced level of growth, higher unemployment and, consequently, a higher deficit. Osborne is now set to borrow more than Alistair Darling would have. But we cannot rerun the 2010 general election. The Chancellor plainly has no intention of changing course and the country will suffer for it. Balls's intervention was, to coin a phrase, an attempt to look forward, not back. Whether this will benefit Labour politically is an open question. At a time when some forecasters say the country is already in recession, the party's shift of emphasis risks appearing irrelevant at best and eccentric at worst. Labour's new position (cuts are harming the economy, so we won't be able to reverse them) cannot easily be sold on the doorstep. Moreover, McCluskey is right to assail Balls for buying "into the hoary old fallacy that increasing the wages of the low-paid risks unemployment." Keynes's rottweiler has endorsed a pay policy that will further squeeze demand out of the economy.

Balls's wager is that while Labour may lose short-term popularity it will win long-term credibility. His model appears to be the 1997 spending freeze (devised by the man himself) that reassured nagging doubts about "spendthrift" Labour. We will never know how the party would have fared had it simply played the "too far, too fast" tune. McCluskey's fears, then, are not ungrounded. But until he shows some awareness of the dramatically altered economic reality, he will not be an honest participant in this debate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.