Mandelson takes a swipe back at McCluskey

Labour peer says the Unite head is "the man who reminds us of where we came from and what we left behind" after McCluskey's attack on him in the NS.

In my interview with him for the NS, Len McCluskey reserved some of his fiercest barbs for Peter Mandelson. With particular reference to the Labour peer, the Unite general secretary said of the Blairite grandees who have warned Ed Miliband not to "tack left":

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.

Unsurprisingly, Mandelson felt the urge to respond. A Labour source informs me that the former Business Secretary declared at last night's Friends of Labour Students dinner that McCluskey was "the man who reminds us of where we came from and what we left behind". 

But Mandelson's riposte is mild compared to that issued by Miliband, who accused McCluskey of a "reprehensible" and "disloyal" attempt to divide the party. 

McCluskey, whose union helped secure the Labour leadership for Miliband in 2010, told me that Miliband would be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he was "seduced" by "the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders". Of Liam Byrne, the shadow and work pensions secretary, he said: "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."

The irony of Miliband's denunciation of McCluskey is that the Unite head has rarely been more well disposed to the Labour leader. McCluskey told me that he thought Miliband was doing "a very good job of holding the party together" and that while there were "disgreements" between the pair, he was happy with the course he had taken since 2010. 

But it is precisely for this reason that Miliband felt it necessary to rebuke the Unite head so swiftly and explicitly. He couldn't allow the impression to form that he was willing to tolerate McCluskey's attack on the "Blairite" shadow cabinet ministers and the suggestion that they should either be ignored or sacked. As I noted in the piece, those associated with Blair are troubled by what they regard as Unite's excessive influence over European and parliamentary candidate selections. Rather than rejecting claims that the union had "stitched up" selections, McCluskey suggested to me that he was simply beating the Blairites at their own game. 

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.
After David Miliband's departure for New York, the Blairites are increasingly anxious about their standing in the party. Miliband's intervention was an important signal that there are lines he will not allow McCluskey to cross. 
Former Labour business secretary Peter Mandelson speaks during an interview at the foreign correspondents club in Hong Kong. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.