Len McCluskey and "the Blairites": setting the record straight

The Unite general secretary claims that my piece on him was "a distortion". Here's why it wasn't.

Len McCluskey is not a happy man. The Unite general secretary is on the warpath over the piece I wrote following my recent interview with him for the New Statesman, describing it as "a distortion" in a letter to NS editor Jason Cowley. The NS offered to publish the response after receiving it but was told it was not for publication. Despite this, Len went on to enclose it in a separate missive to "all Unite MPs" (since leaked to Guido Fawkes). While I have little desire to intrude in a family feud, it would be remiss not to correct the inaccuracies and innuendos that appear in the letter. 

Contrary to what Len suggests, I never wrote that he had called for Ed Miliband to "sack all Blairites" (that was a Daily Mail headline). I did write that he had "declared war" on the "Blairites" in the shadow cabinet after he claimed that Ed Miliband would be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he "gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders", which seemed to me a reasonable description of his attitude towards the harpies allegedly wooing Miliband on to the rocks. After criticising Liam Byrne ("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"), McCluskey told me that "Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be", a suggestive remark that no doubt prompted the Mail and others (if not the NS) to conclude that he was calling for the three shadow cabinet ministers in question to be sacked. 

Earlier in the letter, he claims that I was "intent on a particular story" and "was not leaving" until I had it, while also accurately noting that "it was only towards the end that George himself turned the conversation to certain members of the shadow cabinet" (I did ask him explicitly for his opinion on Liam Byrne, but made no mention of Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy), rather undermining his assertion that I was preoccupied with goading him into attacking "the Blairites". Among other things, we discussed his priorities following his re-election as general secretary, the possible merger between Unite and the PCS, and the likelihood of the trade union movement staging the first general strike since 1926. All of these subjects were covered in the piece. 

Len disputes my assertion that he displayed "contempt" for Tony Blair, praising him as "a consummate politician who led the Labour party to an historic, three consecutive victories". This may be true, but Len did not choose to mention any of this when we spoke. He did, however, tell me that Miliband should "take no notice of the siren voices from the boardrooms of JP Morgan or wherever else he [Blair] is at the moment", while attacking the "gushing eulogies from Tony Blair" that followed Margaret Thatcher's death. I leave you to judge whether "contempt" was the appropriate noun to use. 

I am not surprised that Len felt it necessary to qualify the remarks he made to me. By singling out individual shadow cabinet ministers for criticism ("the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders"), and implying that they should be ignored or sacked, he overstepped the mark and allowed himself to be effortlessly characterised by the right-wing press as another Union "baron" trying to call the shots. But it is Len, not the New Statesman, who bears responsibility for this. 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.