McCluskey's warning to Miliband: if you want Unite's money, change your policies

The Unite general secretary signalled that he would no longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input".

Those who watched the webcast of Len McCluskey's speech to Unite's executive and rank and file members this lunchtime were not left disappointed. The Unite general secretary turned his guns back on Labour over the Falkirk selection row, declaring that the union had "done nothing wrong", that the party's report into the contest was a "shoddy farce" and that he would ensure that "the truth" came out. He went on to denounce the "unelected millionaires" (in this case, Lord Sainsbury) who wanted to "stuff the Parliamentary Labour Party with Oxbridge Blairites" and "the Tory media and New Labour spin doctors" who would "never understand the solidarity of working people". 

But far more significant was the clear signal that he intends to use Ed Miliband's planned reforms to the Labour-union link to maximise Unite's influence over policy and shift Labour to the left. The introduction of a new opt-in system for trade union members will cost the party millions in individual affiliation fees, leaving it even more dependent on one-off donations from unions' political funds. But rather than casually doling out the cash as in the past, McCluskey intends to extract a price. He will longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input" and expects "enhanced" influence under the new system because "our voice and our votes are looked as legitimate". 

This would not mean a party "that is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition" and that "embraces the austerity agenda" but one that "offers real hope, that stands up for the poor and vulnerable, that puts growth at the heart of its agenda, that confronts privilege." McCluskey's speech was short on specifics but his wishlist has previously included a break with "austerity spending" (defined as no further cuts in public spending), the repeal of the benefit cap, a million extra houses and a £1.50 increase in the minimum wage. 

The question now is how far Miliband will go to appease McCluskey's demands (most of which are worthy of support) and how the Unite head will respond if the party falls short. It's important to remember that Miliband has called for a cap of £5,000 on all political donations precisely so trade unions and others can no longer buy influence. But with no sign of a cross-party deal in sight, he will be forced to go cap in hand to the unions unless he wants to gift the Tories an ever bigger advantage in the funding race. 

For Miliband, whose planned reforms to the Labour-union link have been spun as a move to reduce the power of the general secretaries, it is a perilous situation. If he does shift policy in line with McCluskey's wishes, he will be accused by the Tories of caving in to the Unite "baron" and of undermining his own pledge to take big money out of politics (regardless of the the obvious hypocrisy of this charge). If he doesn't, the danger is that Unite, by far Labour's biggest financial backer, will respond by curtailing its funding.

In this game of chicken, who will blink first? 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.