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Len McCluskey's Question Time appearance reveals the trade union movement's real problem

The Unite leader, not his two challengers, was invited on the BBC's flagship show. That the broadcaster doesn't worry about favouritism should worry the trade union movement.

Len McCluskey had a strong performance on BBC's Question Time last night, putting in a star turn in front of an audience of around 2.5m in the week that ballot papers out in the election to decide whether he will remain as General Secretary of Unite. It will have done his chances of re-election no harm. His opponents, Gerard Coyne (running to his right) and Ian Allinson (running to his left) were reduced to live- tweeting angrily from their sofas.

Although trade union elections are generally only covered through the prism of Labour party politics,  they hinge on labour movement politics. The big political swings in the trade union movement have had consequences for Labour’s overall direction but they were driven by the day-to-day affairs of their unions. The defeat of Ken Jackson, the Blairite general secretary of Amicus, one of Unite’s forerunner unions, moved Labour’s affliated unions to the left. But it happened because of the closure of a Jaguar Land Rover plant during the general secretary election. The brief move of Aslef to the centre was facilitated by incompetence at the top. Dave Ward, the CWU’s General Secretary, has been a loyal ally of Jeremy Corbyn’s but owed his victory to his success to his work on the non-political side.

So McCluskey could yet lose, depending on how well members think Unite has handled disputes in their patch. However, it’s not likely, and it’s worth noting that even Labour MPs who hold no brief for McCluskey believe he is handling the Vauxhall dispute well. That the air traffic dispute at the start of the year also ended succesfully is another boost for him.

Continuity at the top of the Unite is less important to the direction of Labour than is sometimes written. Unite are a power player in the game of Labour politics but they are only one of a number of unions. The most effective trade union in terms of getting its people selected and its impact on the Labour party’s structures at the moment is the GMB, not Unite, although that could change if McCluskey remakes Unite’s political team after he wins, as some allies are keen for him to do.

If McCluskey loses, however, that will tip the balance of Labour’s NEC, currently evenly divided between Corbynites and Corbynsceptics. That will empower that section of the Corbynsceptics who dream of a return to the old electoral college system of electing the party leader – where MPs held a third of the vote – and a purge of many of the new joiners.

But regardless of McCluskey’s chances, it is unquestionably a bad move for a public services broadcaster to give a slot on its flagship political programme to one candidate in an election, and not another. And while that is good news for McCluskey the candidate, it is not good news for McCluskey, the once and probably future general secretary of Unite.

Why? Because what McCluskey’s appearance reveals is that at the top of Question Time, not a single senior person takes the trade union movement seriously enough to regard what can only be a major intervention to the advantage of one candidate as something to worry about in terms of neutrality. Coyne and Allison’s treatment is not going to be shared by the candidates in, say, Ukip’s next leadership election.

And if Britain’s largest trade union’s internal workings are treated with less reverence than that of Britain’s decaying fourth party. . . well, that is a far bigger problem for the trade union movement or Labour than the question of who leads Unite. 

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.

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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