Why McCluskey's statement of support is bad for Miliband

By choosing to answer the question "who runs Labour?" the Unite general secretary has suggested the answer was in doubt.

After David Cameron devoted most of PMQs to attacking Unite, Len McCluskey has returned fire, rightly criticising Cameron for cheapening "the office of prime minister" by responding to a question on food banks with a diatribe against the union. He said: 

David Cameron showed today that he has nothing to say to the people of this country who are suffering because of his government's shambolic handling of the economy. 

He dismissed questions on food banks in order to point score and cheapened the office of prime minister by signalling loudly and clearly that he does not care about people's real worries. 

He may have an obsession with me and Unite the union, but I can assure him it’s one that is not shared by the one million young people stuck on the dole, or at the food banks turning people away or among the patients being treated in hospital corridors. 

He also reminded the millions of trade unionists in this country that they are not welcome in the Conservative party, and indeed that they hold trade union members in contempt. 

McCluskey has also declared that "There can be absolutely no question about who runs the Labour party: it is Ed Miliband and he has my full support". But while this might appear to be a supportive statement, it is not one Miliband is likely to welcome. By choosing to answer the question posed by the Tories - who runs Labour? - ("it is Ed Miliband"), McCluskey has suggested that the answer was somehow in doubt. And that, to borrow Cameron's word of choice, certainly makes Miliband look "weak". 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

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