Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
  2. Elections
31 March 2017

Len McCluskey’s Question Time appearance reveals the trade union movement’s real problem

The Unite leader, not his two challengers, was invited on the BBC's flagship show. That the broadcaster doesn't worry about favouritism should worry the trade union movement.

By Stephen Bush

Len McCluskey had a strong performance on BBC’s Question Time last night, putting in a star turn in front of an audience of around 2.5m in the week that ballot papers out in the election to decide whether he will remain as General Secretary of Unite. It will have done his chances of re-election no harm. His opponents, Gerard Coyne (running to his right) and Ian Allinson (running to his left) were reduced to live- tweeting angrily from their sofas.

Although trade union elections are generally only covered through the prism of Labour party politics,  they hinge on labour movement politics. The big political swings in the trade union movement have had consequences for Labour’s overall direction but they were driven by the day-to-day affairs of their unions. The defeat of Ken Jackson, the Blairite general secretary of Amicus, one of Unite’s forerunner unions, moved Labour’s affliated unions to the left. But it happened because of the closure of a Jaguar Land Rover plant during the general secretary election. The brief move of Aslef to the centre was facilitated by incompetence at the top. Dave Ward, the CWU’s General Secretary, has been a loyal ally of Jeremy Corbyn’s but owed his victory to his success to his work on the non-political side.

So McCluskey could yet lose, depending on how well members think Unite has handled disputes in their patch. However, it’s not likely, and it’s worth noting that even Labour MPs who hold no brief for McCluskey believe he is handling the Vauxhall dispute well. That the air traffic dispute at the start of the year also ended succesfully is another boost for him.

Continuity at the top of the Unite is less important to the direction of Labour than is sometimes written. Unite are a power player in the game of Labour politics but they are only one of a number of unions. The most effective trade union in terms of getting its people selected and its impact on the Labour party’s structures at the moment is the GMB, not Unite, although that could change if McCluskey remakes Unite’s political team after he wins, as some allies are keen for him to do.

If McCluskey loses, however, that will tip the balance of Labour’s NEC, currently evenly divided between Corbynites and Corbynsceptics. That will empower that section of the Corbynsceptics who dream of a return to the old electoral college system of electing the party leader – where MPs held a third of the vote – and a purge of many of the new joiners.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But regardless of McCluskey’s chances, it is unquestionably a bad move for a public services broadcaster to give a slot on its flagship political programme to one candidate in an election, and not another. And while that is good news for McCluskey the candidate, it is not good news for McCluskey, the once and probably future general secretary of Unite.

Why? Because what McCluskey’s appearance reveals is that at the top of Question Time, not a single senior person takes the trade union movement seriously enough to regard what can only be a major intervention to the advantage of one candidate as something to worry about in terms of neutrality. Coyne and Allison’s treatment is not going to be shared by the candidates in, say, Ukip’s next leadership election.

And if Britain’s largest trade union’s internal workings are treated with less reverence than that of Britain’s decaying fourth party. . . well, that is a far bigger problem for the trade union movement or Labour than the question of who leads Unite.