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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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