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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.