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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.