Len McCluskey's challenger Gerard Coyne has been suspended from Unite. Getty Images.
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Len McCluskey's rival for Unite general secretary, Gerard Coyne, suspended

Len McCluskey's challenger suspended from his post as West Midlands regional secretary ahead of election result. 

On the day that counting began in the Unite general secretary election, Gerard Coyne, Len McCluskey's challenger, has been suspended from his post. Coyne, who was West Midlands regional secretary, was given no reason for the action. Early returns are said by sources to show the "old right" candidate running ahead of the pro-Corbyn McCluskey by 46 points to 44. As the country's biggest trade union, with 1.4 million members, and Labour's biggest donor, control of Unite is crucial to the party's internal dynamics. 

Last year, Coyne was subject to disciplinary action after addressing a gathering organised by the anti-Corbyn Labour for the Common Good group. He was told that his speech to MPs including Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt was inappropriate "given the sensitivity within the Labour Party at the moment with the constant attacks on the leadership." 

McCluskey, a former Militant supporter, appeared to have a comfortable lead over Coyne after being nominated by 1,185 Unite branches to his rival's 187. But Coyne's team maintained that he  would win, recalling that in the 2002 Amicus election (the union which merged with the TGWU to form Unite), Derek Simpson won despite receiving 93 nominations to Ken Jackson's 352. "Len McCluskey is a machine politician, elected by one in ten Unite members on a low turnout," a Coyne spokesman said then. "Full-time Unite officials were under heavy pressure during the nomination period to deliver for McCluskey.

"Gerard Coyne is appealing to the mass of Unite members who are not part of the McCluskey machine. He is very pleased to have received nominations from every region of the UK, despite the machine, and he will win."

Coyne has sought to appeal to members alienated by Corbyn's stances on stances on defence, fracking and pharmaceuticals (industries where Unite is heavily represented). His team have long hoped to defeat McCluskey by increasing turnout (which stood at just 15.2 per cent in 2013) beyond the union's left-wing core. But though just 14 per cent of Unite members are said to have voted, Coyne supporters are hopeful of victory. "It's the Corbyn effect," a Labour aide said of McCluskey's potential defeat. The election result is due to be announced on 28 April. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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