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.
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Don't blame Jeremy Corbyn - polls show only Tory voters could have kept us in the EU

Despite deep divisions in the Labour Party, it's the Tory voters who let Remain down. 

The Labour Party was already having enough difficulty keeping itself together without a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union coming along. The party was reeling from the election of a leader who was not only well to the left of most of his parliamentary colleagues but also did not obviously have the personal skills needed to do the job. However, the referendum on the EU compounded the party’s difficulties by exposing another fissure - between its traditional white working class supporters and its public sector socially liberal middle class ones (including the vast bulk of its parliamentary party). In combination the two divisions threaten to tear the party part.

Elections in the UK are usually about the left and right of politics, whether the government should do a little more or a little less. On this Labour’s working and middle class supporters tend to be at one with each other. They all, albeit to varying degrees, want the state to do more, to curb the excesses of the capitalist market and produce more equitable outcomes. So long as political conflict focuses on this issue they are a viable electoral coalition.

However, the EU referendum was not about the size and the role of the British state. It was about what Britain’s relationship should be with an intergovernmental organisation that epitomises one of the major social and economic phenomena of our time, globalisation. This phenomenon has had significant economic and cultural consequences, including, not least, substantial flows of migrants in search of work in an internationalised labour market. 

Young graduates vs working class pensioners

Among young university graduates this development is regarded as an opportunity rather than a problem. It is the kind of world in which they have grown up. They have acquired the skills required to compete in the global market place. Indeed, they may well become migrants themselves, deploying their valued skills in Berlin or Barcelona. Meanwhile the experience of university, in which international students are often commonplace, has led them to embrace the cultural diversity that immigration brings.

This world looks very different to many an older white working class voter, who left school at the earliest possible opportunity. They are used to a world in which everyone speaks the same language and shares a common set of cultural values.  As a result, the relatively high levels of immigration that the UK has experienced in recent years is regarded as a threat. They want back the country in which they grew up and in which they once felt comfortable. Meanwhile, they suspect that the inflow of migrants helps explain why they have seen little if any increase in their living standards.

With questions of immigration and identity at its core, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU inevitably cut across Labour’s electoral coalition. Those with different educational experiences voted very differently. According to a large poll conducted on polling day by Lord Ashcroft, graduates and those still in education voted in favour of remaining in the EU by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, while those whose educational experience did not extend beyond secondary school voted by 65 per cent to 35 per cent to leave. Similarly, in their on the day exercise YouGov found that graduates voted in favour of Remain by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, while those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or its equivalent voted by 70 per cent to 30 per cent in favour of Leave. The party’s middle class supporters were in a very different place on this issue than their more working class ones.

White voters vs ethnic minorities

Just to compound Labour’s difficulties, there was a clear ethnic division in the referendum too. Those from an ethnic minority background, who have never shown much inclination to back UKIP, seemingly found the Leave side’s emphasis on reducing immigration relatively unattractive. Lord Ashcroft estimates that only 32 per cent of those from an ethnic minority background voted to Leave, compared with 53 per cent of those who regard themselves as ‘white’. Consequently, another part of Labour’s electoral coalition, Britain’s ethnic minority population, were also on the other side of the referendum divide from the party’s traditional white working class base.

Against this backdrop it was, in truth, hardly surprising that the highest level of support for Leave was in predominantly working class local authority areas in the North and Midlands of England where Labour tends to be relatively strong.  In the 2014 European Parliament election, Labour won on average 28 per cent of the vote in those local authority areas where less than 22 per cent have a degree, whereas the party won just 20 per cent in areas where more than 32 per cent are graduates. Now in the referendum, on average Leave won as much as 64 per cent of the vote in those places that fall into the former group, but as little as 42 per cent in the latter. A t the same time, no less than 71 of the 90 local authority areas in England and Wales with fewest graduates are in the North of England and the Midlands, whereas just 13 of the 83 areas with most graduates do so.

In short, the principal explanation for the fact that Leave did so well in the West Midlands (59 per cent), the East Midlands (59 per cent), the North East (58 per cent), and in Yorkshire & Humberside (58 per cent) in particular lies in the demography of Leave support and of those regions rather than in any particular failings on the part of the Labour party. Indeed, once we have taken the demographic character of an area into account, if anything Remain tended to do rather better the stronger Labour was locally. For example, amongst those council areas in England and Wales with relatively few graduates Leave won 62 per cent of the vote on average in places where Labour won over 25 per cent of the vote in 2014, compared with 67 per cent where Labour won less than 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, it was, of course, the other parts of its coalition, the socially liberal middle class and the country’s ethnic minority population, that ensured that London was the one part of England and Wales that did vote decisively in favour of remaining  (by 60 per cent to 40 per cent).  No less than 24 of the 33 council areas in the capital have a population in which over 32 per cent are graduates, while no less than 27 of the 41 most ethnically diverse parts of England and Wales are located in the capital. Again demography was crucial.

Corbyn not to blame

Against this backdrop it was hardly surprising that across Britain as a whole only around two-thirds (63 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 65 per cent as estimated by YouGov) of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU. The party was never likely to achieve much more than this. And at least the party’s coalition did not fracture as badly as the one that backed David Cameron a year ago; well under half (42 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 39 per cent, YouGov) of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted to remain. The real source of the Remain side’s difficulties was the failure of David Cameron to bring his own voters on board.

Yet it is Jeremy Corbyn who is taking the blame for the inside much of the Labour party for the Remain side’s failure, as the party’s pre-existing division about his leadership interacts with the division made manifest by the referendum. Of course, MPs are entitled to make their own judgement about Mr Corbyn’s capabilities for the job, a judgement that his performance in the referendum appears to have reinforced and which they may feel has become more pressing given that the outcome of the referendum makes an early general election more likely. But in truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat. The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for `an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.

However, the referendum does raise questions for all wings of the Labour party, including above all its parliamentary party in which middle class graduates predominate. As we have argued before, unless the party can persuade the less well-off in Britain that social democracy can tame the tiger of globalised capitalism so that their interests and concerns – cultural as well as economic – can be met, it is at risk of losing their support. We have already in Scotland how the politics of identity can cause much of Labour’s working class support to melt away, and there is a risk that a similar politics could have the same effect in England should UKIP be able to sustain a post-referendum purpose and appeal. 

Certainly, there was little in the Remain side’s case – as espoused by Labour as well as the Conservatives – that met those concerns. There was, in truth, no answer on how to deal with immigration, while there was little attempt to explain how the UK’s membership of the EU could be used to advance the economic interests of the less well of. Instead the only reason offered for voting to remain was the allegedly deleterious consequences of leaving. Telling working class people that they have to put up with the consequences of globalisation is simply not good enough. Labour needs to take note – whoever leads it.
            
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for IPPR’s journal Juncture