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 The NS offered to publish the response after receiving it but was told it was not for publication.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.

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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