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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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.