Exclusive: Len McCluskey declares war on shadow cabinet "Blairites"

Unite general secretary says Miliband will be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he gets "seduced" by "the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders".

In the last fortnight, beginning with Tony Blair's article for the centenary edition of the New Statesman, a series of New Labour figures have warned Ed Miliband not to shift to the left. Now, in the form of Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, the left has responded. I've interviewed McCluskey, the head of Britain's biggest trade union and Labour's largest donor (accounting for 28 per cent of donations to the party last year), for tomorrow's NS and he took the opportunity to open fire at the "Blairites" in the shadow cabinet who he believes could lead the party to defeat. 

McCluskey, whose union helped secure the Labour leadership for Miliband, praised him for doing "a good job" since his election but told me that if he was "seduced" by the Blairites he'd lose the election and be "cast into the dustbin of history". He singled out shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne for criticism. 

Ed Miliband must spend most of his waking hours grappling with what lies before him. If he is brave enough to go for something radical, he’ll be the next prime minister. If he gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.

Implicitly calling for the removal of the shadow ministers in question, he told me that Miliband had to go into the election "with a team that he's confident in" and said of Byrne, who has become a hate figure for the anti-austerity left:

Liam Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy, I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be.

McCluskey warned that Labour would lose the next election if it adopted an "austerity-lite" programme and supported cuts in public spending after 2015. 

We believe that Ed should try to create a radical alternative. My personal fear, and that of my union, is that if he goes to the electorate with an austerity-lite programme than he will get defeated and I think the reason I say that is because I'’m fairly confident that Cameron will go to the electorate in two year’s time now, which will go pretty quickly, and basically his message will be '‘stick with me'. You’'ve had difficult times, you’'ve had to go through horrible situations but there'’s a light at the end of the tunnel, stick with me. And I'’ve just observed Barack Obama being elected as president of the US, where there was a very similar message that he put out to the American people, he repeated over and over again, ‘stick with me’. And they did do. And so my fear is that if Ed is simply offering the British electorate an austerity-lite programme, that won'’t capture their imagination.

In a signal that Unite’s continued support should not be assumed, he said that the unions "would have to sit down and consider their situation" if Labour fails to emerge as "the authentic voice of ordinary working people".

If he [Miliband] is daft enough to get sucked into the old Blairite ‘neoliberalism wasn’t too bad and we just need to tinker with it a little bit’...then not only will he fail but I fear for the future of the Labour Party.

While McCluskey denounces the nefarious hand of the Blairites, others in the party are troubled by what they regard as his union’'s excessive influence, with a recent Times frontpage documenting claims that Unite has “"stitched up"” candidate selections for the European elections. It is a charge McCluskey has little patience with. 

The truth is that this is a process that was set up by Tony Blair, and the right-wing and organisations like Progress have had it their own way for years and years and have seen nothing wrong it.
 
Because we're having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Tony Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.

The Unite head also told me that Margaret Thatcher's ceremonial funeral was "distasteful in the extreme", that Boris Johnson was "hypocritical" for calling for a ban on strikes that are supported by less than half of union members and that Unite was "open to a merger" with Mark Serwotka's PCS, a union not affiliated to Labour. 

You can read the interview in full here, but here are some of the highlights. 

On Blair and Mandelson

My message to Ed is to take no notice of the siren voices from the boardrooms of JP Morgan or wherever else he [Blair] is at the moment. Just concentrate on what you’'re doing, concentrate on trying to create this alternative, this radical alternative that the British people are desperate for.

It may be easy for these people, who are sitting with the huge sums of money that they’ve amassed now - they’ve done pretty well out of it, remember it was Mandelson who said he was comfortable about the filthy rich, presumably that’s because he wanted to be one of the filthy rich. But the fact is that under Labour the gap between rich and poor increased...that’s a stain on what Labour stands for.

On Thatcher's death

My immediate thoughts, and this is true, were the hundreds of thousands of lives which Thatcherism destroyed, the communities that were broken and many of the communities that have never been repaired.
 
Did I mourn her death? No, I didn’t. Did I celebrate her death? Well, not particularly in terms of celebrating any individual’s demise. For me it crystallised, once again, the debate about her policies and I believe Thatcherism was an evil creed, it was the creed that made God out of greed, greed was the God of Thatcherism.
On Thatcher's funeral
It was distasteful in the extreme. I think it was the last Labour government that talked about it and we’'ve seen all the gushing eulogies from Tony Blair and, in a sense, that’'s the impact of the woman, that she was able to get the Labour Party to respond in that way to her. But I thought it was wrong, it was inappropriate. She died and she should have been given a respectful burial by her family in the way that others did, everybody knew the divisiveness of this and yet were happy to play along with it.
On Boris Johnson's call for a new law banning strikes without the support of 50% of union members
It’s slightly hypocritical because on that basis Boris Johnson wouldn’t have been elected Mayor of London; only 38 per cent of Londoners took part…It amuses me on the one hand and angers me on the other, the hypocrisy of Tory leaders. Here we are, at a time of enormous crisis within the economy and all they want to do is attack workers’ rights.

On a possible merger between Unite and the PCS

The PCS have their conference in May and my understanding is they’ll be discussing the whole question of the future of PCS, so I suspect what we all should do is wait for the outcome of that conference. From Unite’s point of view, we are always engaged in discussions with sister unions about whether there’s a legitimacy for us to work closer on the one hand or, indeed, merge together on the other hand.”

I’m open to a merger in principle with every union, maybe there’s one or two that I wouldn’t, but I’m not going to name them. But yes, of course, we will talk to any union. As I said, I’ve already had discussions with several unions since becoming general secretary and that is part of Unite’s strategy for growth.

 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey addresses delegates at the TUC's annual conference in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.