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 The NS offered to publish the response after receiving it but was told it was not for publication.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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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