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 The NS offered to publish the response after receiving it but was told it was not for publication.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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.