The Blairite zombies need to face up to New Labour's failures

The stale prescriptions offered by the likes of Alan Johnson are the road to defeat and working class disappointment.

In the first half of this month I’ve had a couple of considered attacks levelled at me. When you’re fighting a general secretary election you expect to draw some criticisms, but this usually comes from within the union. This time, with Alan Johnson interviewed in Progress magazine and David Cameron delivering a pre-rehearsed line at PMQs – both focusing their pains on me – I took note. And you might be forgiven for thinking that if Alan and Dave agree there must be something to it – even I was scratching my head.

Without wishing to jab my finger from a rostrum or simply make further cries for greater trade union freedoms (God forbid) I am keen to engage in an exchange of views and dissuade people from the tired old image that the reactionary right-wing press would pin on trade unions and their leaders – something it seems Alan Johnson is willing to assist them in doing. So my response here is in the best tradition of democratic debate.
 
Alan contends that we in the trade union movement view victory as a "bourgeois concept"; well I don’t, it’s just that New Labour was, in some ways, a bourgeois victory. It was the first Labour government with a huge parliamentary majority which did nothing to touch the fundamentals of wealth and power in our society. Whilst Ed Miliband tries to build his policies around a One Nation vision his starting point is a society more unequal than it was in 1997. Alan avoided this chasm in the New Labour attainment list.
 
However, his recital of Labour’s many achievements in office is real, and a corrective to those who say that 13 years of Labour government delivered nothing. But if that is the truth, it is very far from being the whole truth.
 
For example, Alan neglects to mention that Labour left in place just about all of the draconian restrictions placed on free trade unionism by the Thatcher government. Indeed, Tony Blair boasted to a business audience that Britain’s labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe. This was an area where New Labour remained all too fond of state regulation. I cannot believe that Alan, as a former trade union leader, has no opinion on this.
 
Of at least equal importance is the fact that New Labour remained wedded to a neo-liberal economic strategy which has now crashed and burned. Ruthlessly prioritising the interests of the City over all other industries, and with a belief in free markets which even many Conservatives would regard as naïve, the last government got the biggest issue of all for most Labour voters very wrong.
 
I mention this because Alan’s political clock, as for many on the right of the party, seems to have stopped in 2008. They appear unable to honestly face up to what happened then, and the urgent need for a re-evaluation of New Labour’s economic record, as well as a different perspective for the future. On policy, Alan fails this test, bizarrely arguing that Osborne’s economic policy "is the biggest failure of a flagship policy I can remember" and yet in the same breath insisting that Labour must stick to it if it is to be credible.
 
To his credit, Ed Miliband is well aware of these challenges and has taken important steps towards necessary renewal, but the selective amnesia of Alan and others is of no help in restoring Labour’s credibility. The bald fact is that, despite the achievements Alan lists, Labour had lost four million votes under Tony Blair by 2005. Some of that was undoubtedly down to the Iraq war – another episode Alan seems to have forgotten – but much of it was due to working-class Labour supporters simply stopping voting.
 
So determined are the Blairite true believers – led by Progress – to stick their head in the sand on this point that they increasingly resemble Bertolt Brecht’s description of the East German government – "the people have lost confidence in the party, therefore we must elect a new people." The central message, which Ed Miliband is clear about, is that New Labour is over. I should also point out that I have never called for the exclusion of Progress and I am always open to engaging in democratic debate.
 
The root of the problem, I believe, is that Tony Blair and the Blairites never understood collectivism. Theirs was a radical individualism which could not speak to the experiences of millions of people who have always understood that progress is only attainable by working together, by collective self-empowerment, not through the accumulation of extra individual rights. Individual rights, as this coalition is proving, are easily dismantled. A skim of Blair’s memoirs underlines just how distant he always was from an understanding of unions’ culture and purpose – not so much anti-union as simply uncomprehending.
 
I certainly have no interest in refighting battles of the past. It is clear that the 2015 agenda cannot be that of 1945, 1974 – or 1997. And I believe trade unions have a key part to play in shaping the future, as they have done in Labour’s past. In that context, some of Alan’s points are important. Unions cannot ignore painful truths either, like our falling membership numbers. While we are still by far the largest voluntary organisations in the country, we have lost ground, largely because of industrial change and globalisation.
 
Those are reasons, but they cannot become excuses. Ultimately, we have to grow or wither and eventually become irrelevant. That is why Unite has built up a team of 90 dedicated organisers in the last six years, trying to spread trade unionism to new companies and workplaces, with a number of notable successes. Our 100 per cent trade unionism campaign brought in over 50,000 extra recruits last year alone. Enough? No – but there are no short-cuts and Unite, as well as other unions, are investing the resources and imagination to turn this around even in a deeply unfavourable economic climate.
 
Alan also argues that unions must reconnect to communities. That is an imperative in a world in which the historic connections of union, workplace and community have frayed and changed beyond recognition. Obviously Alan does not know that Unite has launched just such an initiative in the last year. In fact, if Alan was keeping up to date with modern politics he might recognise the teachings of Arnie Graf in our efforts to engage whole communities in the collective work of trade unions.
 
We have opened our doors to anyone not in work, and are organising thousands of new community members into special branches across the country, assisted by ten full-time community organisers. Unite is offering specialist legal and welfare assistance, as well as building a campaigning network to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are amplified by trade union strength. Not least of all our Unite Community Branch, fighting tirelessly across Hull to save the city's hospital. I’d happily extend an invite on their behalf for Alan to get involved.
 
If Alan is simply unaware of Unite’s community work, he appears actively opposed to our efforts to get more working class people into parliament as Labour MPs. Of course, no one should argue against men and women from a diversity of backgrounds serving in Labour cabinets, even though Alan’s view of Oxbridge as a "treadmill" will amuse my members working in factories, bus garages and on building sites.
 
The problem is we no longer have that diversity. The 1945 Labour government could accommodate both Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan on the one hand, and Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps on the other. But increasingly working people are finding the path into parliament blocked by activists – many of them, of course, sincere and talented people – drawn from a very narrow social background.
 
That is bad for politics as a whole and especially the Labour Party. What Alan is really afraid of, I think, is the left starting to do what New Labour and Progress have long been successful at – fighting parliamentary selections to win. For too long, this has been a one-sided contest which has left us with a Parliamentary Labour Party often out of step with opinion in the party and the country.
 
And that, of course, is why Alan revisits the old chestnut of diluting trade union influence in the Labour party. Talk about backward looking! That debate has been around for twenty years or more and has never secured Labour a single extra vote at the polls. I have no objection to discussing constitutional change, provided it serves a real purpose and is even-handed. But Alan’s argument for cutting union votes in the Labour Party appears to rest on our falling membership. Yet his proposals would presumably expand the share of the policy vote going to the individual membership, which has fallen in proportionate terms even faster – Labour is now, alas, less than half the size it was in 1997.
 
Alan’s naval gazing on internal party structures would be better spent developing a decent analysis of how New Labour allowed itself to sow the seeds of destruction for our public services. PFI, free schools, foundation trusts, all now being ridden to hell on horseback by a right-wing government that wants the private sector to own and profit from public services, whilst we continue to pay for them. If the behaviour of the unions sometimes upsets a New Labour focus group, it’s because we find ourselves fighting battles to preserve an NHS and a welfare state under serious threat – with little help from Blairite retrogrades like Alan Milburn and Patricia Hewitt, now spending their political afterlife profiting from the privatisation they oversaw in government.
 
Unite has 2,200 members in the Hull West constituency, around ten times the number of Labour Party members. And it was in Hull this year that 500 Greencore workers were recently forced to strike following blatant disregard for employment tribunal rulings, with workers facing wage cuts of up to £2,000 a year whilst company CEO Patrick Coveney sought to persuade shareholders to pay him an enhanced €1.7m pay package so he could enjoy a millionaire’s lifestyle. These are the real-life consequences brought about when ruling elites become "relaxed" about extreme wealth, the collective strength of organised labour is quashed and a low-wage flexible job market is allowed to ensue.
 
Diminishing union involvement will not only fray one of Labour’s most important connections to its core electorate but increase reliance – financial and political – on the same small elite increasingly dominating political life across all major parties. And Alan knows affiliated unions in the Labour Party affiliate on the basis of the number of individuals members paying the political levy. Whilst it is easy to personify trade unions through their leaders, our influence in the party is through our millions of ordinary and diverse members.
 
On the issue of diversity and equality, let me say this. If Alan truly views the trade union movement as "fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes" then his view is one firmly set in the past. Our organisations are among the few in society to sincerely promote equality and fairness for all and actively oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability. Two out of three of Unite’s assistant general secretaries are women, our national and regional equality committees enjoy equal status with industrial sector committees and our 1.5 million members reflect the wonderful diversity seen throughout our country. Could Alan say that about the PLP? Unite is proud to be a modern, progressive, representative and inclusive trade union.
 
Ed Miliband has set the right tone for comradely debate in the party. I believe that Labour will go into the next election united, hopefully behind a radical manifesto offering real hope to millions and no concessions to those whose greed and stupidity has pushed the country into economic calamity. That I believe is the road to victory – a victory both on polling day and in the months and years afterwards. The stale prescriptions Alan seems addicted to are the road, not to a "bourgeois victory", but to working class disappointment.
 
Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite
Labour MP and former shadow chancellor Alan Johnson criticised Unite general secretary Len McCluskey in an interview with Progress magazine. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.