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 The NS offered to publish the response after receiving it but was told it was not for publication.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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A general election means Jeremy Corbyn's euroscepticism is finally an asset

The Labour leader's track record means he can connect with Remain and Leave voters alike. 

The first anti-establishment party leader to offer true ideological opposition and alternative to the Thatcher consensus in a generation is staring down the barrel of a 20 point polling deficit at the start of this snap election race. This leader has filled halls; galvanised hundreds of thousands and consistently voted on the side of freedom, progress and justice. So just why has he been abandoned by those who should support him?

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has rightly been held to account, the criticisms have been, at times, unfairly amplified both by hostile MPs and a condescending press. With the election just over 40 days away, the left must now realise the severity of the task at hand, and question whether its constant attacks are helping to create the monstrous Tory landslide we all so fear. In the run-in, Corbyn will need unified backing by all those who oppose austerity, inequality and injustice, in a way he’s so far failed to receive.

The votes for Brexit and Donald Trump show the sheer disillusionment with the extreme centre governments of the last decades, that have given rise to mass inequality, caused global instability and brought terrorism to our doors. While Corbyn’s policies – on nationalising railways, foreign intervention, supporting the NHS, tuition fees, and more – are overwhelmingly supported by the public, he has so far lacked the communicative edge to ride the wave of this new age of populism. Whereas policy-lite Trump romped home with the mere repetition of eight syllables, Corbyn often misses opportunities to sell the bright, inclusive future needed to inspire the British public. He needs to create the punchy soundbite that sells his vision, in one, short sentence what a future Britain can look like, and how it stands in stark contrast to that of the Tories.

Throughout his spell at the helm of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s style has constantly been ridiculed; from his dress sense to tone of voice. So what do we really value in a leader and how should they act?

As PM, David Cameron regularly hit home in Parliament, brashly mocking opponents with quips and digs. He stood smug and unrepentant as deeply damaging cuts were enforced. But while he was once considered a strong and stately leader, history now judges him quite differently. For inflicting austerity, and leaving behind a heavily divided Britain, he’s now recognised as one of the worst. Theresa May’s brief stint at leadership has already seen a humiliating u-turn, dodged live debate and false election date promises, all while cruelly playing with the lives of millions of EU nationals.

Meanwhile, Corbyn, who at times has been unfairly lambasted for his approach has consistently displayed personal and professional dedication to championing pro-people politics for over 30 years, undeterred by spin and political games. Compassion, equality, fairness - surely these leadership traits hold equal worth.

In an election based primarily on Brexit, Corbyn can take real and emboldened ownership. A lifelong eurosceptic, Corbyn has the chance to offer a people-led Brexit that works for the majority, reaching out to Leave and Remain voters alike.

Much of the Remain protest movement and post-referendum activism revolves around fears of Britain becoming racist, hostile and isolationist in its approach to would-be migrants, and EU nationals. In negotiations, if a deal on immigration is to be struck, Corbyn’s historically compassionate views on migrants and refugees could create the most fair, humane solution possible. In his move today, he’s sought to reassure EU nationals of a future far removed from May’s brutal nationalistic games. And in Corbyn’s lifelong championing of workers’ rights, and redistribution of wealth, he can at last speak to the working-class heartlands freely of an inclusive and beneficial post-Brexit future.

While there can be shortcomings in Corbyn’s communication, and occasionally muted approach; criticisms can frequently seem unbalanced. His inability to shout about recent budgetary u-turns, for instance, made headlines over the actual climbdown itself. The time has surely come to focus on the severity of the alternative.

Throughout his leadership, Corbyn has been targeted by all corners of the press, with focus poured on his character over providing a real and important platform to explore his policies. When he refused mass media engagement he was dubbed cranky and weak, yet we’ve largely let May off the hook for dodging much-needed live debate. Written off by Westminster, mocked and condemned by the media. A principled voice fighting for equality, inclusion and fairness. Not much has changed in 30 years.

While we must hold his leadership to account, there is a sense that we, on the left are at times helping to fuel the massive Tory victory we apparently dread. So now is the time to remind ourselves, and others, who and what we’re up against. The "go-home illegal immigrants" vans circulated, and then pulled by May; her election u-turn, reinvention and uncompromising hard-Brexit approach. A party of callous, brutal decisions that have caused despair and plunged many into poverty. A snapshot of their comparative voting records alone should be enough to put the choice ahead of us into stark perspective.

And just to reiterate Corbyn’s largely swallowed, forgotten record during his rebranding as meaningless, lost and ineffectual. He was right on sad, regrettable wars; he passionately protested apartheid, championed workers rights and equal pay, and has consistently stood up for the NHS – against party line.

That’s a name, record and leader many will be proud to put an inked endorsement by on 8 June 2017. 

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