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29 February 2012

How Ed should handle McCluskey

Miliband should condemn McCluskey's Olympics threat but he can't "rein him in".

By George Eaton

On one level, Unite leader Len McCluskey’s threat to disrupt the Olympics is unsurprising. If you oppose all of the cuts (as McCluskey does), why not strike at the moment of maximum inconvenience? The trade union head tells the Guardian:

The attacks that are being launched on public-sector workers at the moment are so deep and ideological that the idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable.

It’s important to note, as few have, that this was not an unprompted intervention. McCluskey was asked by the paper if he had “talked about” the possibility of strike action during the Olympics and it’s unsurprising, at this stage, that he’s not willing to take any options off the table. That is standard negotiating practice.

What make his intervention significant is his standing in the labour movement. As general secretary of Unite he leads the country’s biggest trade union and Labour’s biggest donor, responsible for a quarter of all donations to the party. And, lest we forget, had it not been for his union, among others, David Miliband, not Ed, would now be wearing the crown.

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Nick Clegg, a long-standing critic of the unions, has already called on Ed Miliband to “rein in” McCluskey, something that is neither possible nor desirable for the Labour leader to do. As the democratically-elected head of a trade union, McCluskey should answer to no one but his members.

What Miliband can and should do is simply condemn the Unite leader. Unlike Tony Blair, Miliband has never sought to define himself by picking fights with his own party. But that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t respond when union leaders speak out.

Tessa Jowell, Labour’s shadow Olympics minister, has already issued an unambiguous statement:

No one in our country looking forward to the Olympics, no athlete preparing, and none of our thousands of potential visitors, would understand or sympathise with any disruption to the Olympic Games.

If this is a negotiation it should take place in private. Unions and employers should get together and sort it out without threats or disruption to Britain’s Olympics.

Those who say that Miliband cannot afford to alienate Unite, his party’s biggest paymaster, should remember that, even at the height of Blairism, the unions continued to pay the bills.