The Labour leader Ed Miliband has criticised comments made by Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union, as “wrong and unhelpful”.
The recently elected union boss, who is due to meet with David Cameron and other union bosses later today, has written a piece in the Guardian expressing solidarity with the student protesters and calling for further strike action:
The magnificent students’ movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped.
The rallying cry continues:
It is our responsibility not just to our members but to the wider society that we defend our welfare state and our industrial future against this unprecedented assault.
Calling for Miliband to elaborate a clearer position on cuts, he makes the somewhat barbed comment:
“What do we want? Fewer cuts later on”, is not a slogan to set the blood coursing.
Miliband, who has made a concerted effort to distance himself from the unions since he was brought to power on the strength of their vote, was quick to slap the comments down. A spokesperson said:
Ed warned about using overblown rhetoric about strikes in his conference speech and this is a case in point.
The language and tone of Len McCLuskey’s comments are wrong and unhelpful and Ed Miliband will be making that clear when he meets him in the near future.
This is just the latest sign of tension – when Miliband said in his conference speech that he would have “no truck” with irresponsible strikes, McCluskey was filmed mouthing: “Rubbish.”
Speaking to the New Statesman in September, McCluskey indicated that he would be happy to challenge Labour:
I’m not for leaving the Labour Party, but I’m not going to continue the line of just handing over millions of pounds without it demonstrating it is changing.
The right-wing media were quick to decry the election of “Red Len” as a disaster for Miliband that could bring out splits and divisions. Though there is no strong evidence yet that this will be the case, such public spats benefit no one.
A functional, direct relationship between Labour and the unions is desirable and productive – a fact of which both men are well aware. Before his election, McCluskey himself wrote:
Of course we need public opinion on our side, which is why working closely with Labour MPs is so vital.
Conversely, there is a strong argument for Labour to align itself with the interests of ordinary workers. McCluskey’s comment about the “fewer cuts later on” slogan will hit a nerve in a Labour Party that has yet to articulate a clear position on funding cuts that resonates with voters.
When this has been achieved, Miliband will be in a more comfortable position to re-evaluate the way in which he works with McCluskey and other bosses. Labour and the unions should be working together to unite public opinion against swingeing, ideological cuts – not bickering over rhetoric.