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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser