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Powers behind the throne: how the unions control Corbyn’s fate

Trade unions will be confronted with a painful choice, should Corbyn fight and lose the 2020 election.

At a Labour away day at ­Unison’s headquarters in central London on 20 March, the trade union’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, provided the calm before the storm of a shadow cabinet slugfest. Prentis, who leads an organisation representing 1.3 million public-service workers, achieved a feat that has evaded Labour’s struggling leader. He unified, if temporarily, Jeremy Corbyn’s squabbling frontbenchers.

For 35 minutes the shadow cabinet nodded as Prentis itemised the destructive impact of Tory austerity: the worsening wages, the cuts to public services, the suffering heaped disproportionately on women. He then explained why Labour should champion carers as well as the cared.

But it all went downhill as soon as Prentis left the room. A shadow cabinet member who was present told me that some Labour heavyweights had refused to play Corbyn’s chosen parlour game, which asked them to name their three most pressing priorities.

That Unison hosted this event illustrates how deeply trade unions are embedded in the Labour Party. The political and industrial wings of the labour movement are bound together organisationally, financially and culturally, in pursuit of a better deal for working Britons.

Talk privately to trade union general secretaries – as I have been doing for nearly three decades, during which time, more often than not, the Conservative Party has been in power – and most will freely admit that the biggest single improvement to the lives of the toilers and strivers they represent would be a Labour government. With Labour in office, doors in Whitehall open to the union movement. There is also the promise of broader benefits, such as better employment law, a real living wage, higher NHS spending, council house-building, and so on – all policies promised by the party now marooned in opposition.

Given that Jeremy Corbyn looks unlikely ever to make it into 10 Downing Street, why do the unions tolerate or, in some cases, continue to support his leadership? Trade unionists are by nature pragmatic dealmakers and, in private, nearly all admit that Corbyn’s leadership isn’t working. The disagreement, however, is over what to do next. The easy option is to do nothing, yet the first stirrings of rebellion can be heard.

Most trade unions were swept along by the 2015 groundswell that put Corbyn in charge. The majority stuck with him in 2016 after the attempted coup by Labour MPs. Prentis views Corbyn as a friend, the Labour leader having won goodwill by appearing on picket lines for decades at the drop of a Lenin cap. In policy terms, Corbyn was much closer to Unison’s positions than his rivals for the leadership were.

But after Labour lost the Copeland by-election to the Conservative Party in February, the tone shifted. “The blame for these results,” Prentis said afterwards, “does not lie solely with Jeremy Corbyn, but he must take responsibility for what happens next.”

The moment to remove Corbyn is “not now”, many trade unionists say. This mood is best articulated by the left-wing Labour loyalist Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Aslef train drivers’ union and chair of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, which co-ordinates 14 affiliates representing nearly three million members. Whelan, who will probably win one of the union seats on the party’s National Executive Committee later this year, says: “The real belief seems to be that yet another leadership election would be destructive and counterproductive. ‘No outstanding alternative’ is also a recurring theme with most people I talk to.”

Float the names of potential Labour leaders with general secretaries over a pint (such as Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis, Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Yvette Cooper, Jonathan Ashworth, Louise Haigh and Tom Watson) and there is no consensus. The absence of a challenger is Corbyn’s greatest advantage.

Most union initiatives are co-ordinated by a “big four” of general secretaries: Unite’s Len McCluskey, the GMB’s Tim Roache, Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Unison’s Prentis. Corbyn has fractured their unity. Roache and the GMB, which sat out the 2015 leadership contest, plumped for Owen Smith last year after a survey of its members found that most of them wanted a change at the top. I understand that this quartet, who speak for 3.5 million workers, haven’t convened recently, though they still speak regularly.

Matt Wrack, the Corbyn-supporting general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, which restored formal relations with Labour in 2015 after severing ties during the Blair era, believes that rebellious MPs are to blame. Wrack rejoined the party, a quarter-century after being expelled over his ties to Militant.

“There is an unending attempt to undermine Corbyn and, regrettably, much of it comes from within the Parliamentary Labour Party,” he says. “As in any organisation, there are clearly improvements that can be made but it is clear that a defeat of Corbyn or his removal by any means would mean a huge step backwards.”

The trade unionist best placed to pull the rug from under Comrade Corbyn is McCluskey. The Unite leader is distracted by a campaign to secure his re-election as general secretary (voting has begun and the result will be announced on 28 April). He is currently occupied ducking the mud thrown by his main challenger, Gerard Coyne, an old West Midlands mucker of Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson. Watson has fallen out with McCluskey since the not-so-distant days when they shared a London flat (the origins of their animosity are unclear but Corbyn is now at the heart of it). Yet “Red Len” is a far more nuanced figure than the stereotype portrayed by the Tory tabloids.

In 2015, there were whispers that McCluskey favoured Andy Burnham. Yet the latter’s bewildering policy positions gave the Unite leader no chance of ­persuading his leftist executive to back anyone but Corbyn. On 26 March this year, McCluskey repeated on BBC Radio 5 Live what he had previously told me was his “15-month goal” for Corbyn to improve matters. “I hope Jeremy can rectify the unfair image the media have placed upon him,” he said to me. “We all have to do what we can and see how the next 15 months unfold.”

The threat is implicit rather than explicit. Nobody in the union movement under­estimates the personal cost to McCluskey if he turns on Corbyn, particularly given that the Unite boss’s close friend Karie Murphy is the Labour leader’s office manager. The comments are perhaps a rallying call, rather than a warning. Either way, McCluskey’s intervention dripped with dissatisfaction.

Whatever occurs in the coming months and years, potential candidates in a Labour leadership contest are likely to require the nominations of at least 15 per cent of MPs and MEPs. Suggestions from Unite and Momentum that this threshold be reduced to 5 per cent have been opposed by Unison and the GMB. Without this change, it would be difficult for a member of the PLP’s Socialist Campaign Group to succeed Corbyn.

The unions provide a third of Labour’s funding. It is the party that faces a threat to its existence, not the labour movement, argues a smart operator at the heart of the movement who has ambitions to become a Labour MP. “In the unions, we’re just getting on with arguing for pay rises, saving jobs and protecting public services. The blunt truth is, much of the time, the Labour Party doesn’t feel particularly relevant to what we’re doing,” he says. “Jeremy will always come along to a rally . . . But nobody expects [him] to win the next election. Can anyone in Labour really win it? Everybody was saying in 2015 that Labour was going to lose again, before Jeremy’s full-blooded socialism, so it’s not really his fault, is it?”

This judgement goes a long way to explain why exasperated union leaders aren’t hammering at the leader’s door with one hand while gripping his P45 in the other.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, is known to be frustrated, yet she bites her lip and refrains from commenting publicly on Labour’s predicament. Most of the 51 unions affiliated to the TUC, including those in education and the civil service, aren’t constitutionally linked to Labour.

For Matt Wrack, Corbyn is still worth fighting for, to move the party in a different direction. “The election of Jeremy Corbyn has marked a sea change in Labour’s attitude to the trade unions,” he says. “One very clear example of this is in relation to public-sector pay. In 2015, and before Corbyn, Labour’s then shadow chancellor [Ed Balls] wrote of the need to back the Tory freeze on public-sector pay. It was a slap in the face for public-sector unions, especially those affiliated to the Labour Party. Since Corbyn’s election, that approach has gone from the front bench – it’s as simple as that. The new leadership has demonstrated a very clear commitment to working with the unions . . . That is a breath of fresh air compared with the union-bashing we got from Blair.”

But what about Conservative union-bashing? EU-endorsed workplace rights – paid holidays, equality, consultation – will not be guaranteed automatically in post-Brexit Britain, freeing the Tories to attack employment practices.

Trade unions will be confronted with a painful choice, should Corbyn fight and lose the 2020 election. Socialist policies are inspiring, but without power they never get further than the pages of the manifesto. The movement’s solidarity is with working people, rather than just one man. Corbyn would be unwise to bank on sustained union endorsement. In Labour politics, there is no such thing as a blank cheque.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.


West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.


West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.


Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition