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
Show Hide image

The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder