The most important election in the next five years isn't in the country. It's in Unite

Who runs Labour's largest affiliate will be a deciding factor in the party's future. 

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The biggest story in Labour politics last week wasn't John McDonnell's speech on the economy - but the news that Jennie Formby, the political director of Unite, Britain's largest trade union and one of Unite's representatives on Labour's ruling national executive committee - is leaving her post as political director. Formby will remain within Unite, serving as regional secretary in the South West, and will retain her position on Labour's NEC, where she is, in the words of one Unite official, "absolutely loyal to Len [McCluskey, Unite's general secretary] in a way few in Unite can be said to be", and in the words of another NEC member, "Len's representative on Earth". 

The move matters for two reasons. First, Unite is the biggest power player in the Labour party and its political director is one of the most important figures within it - the 2015 intake, the most leftwing since 1987, bore the Unite imprimatur very heavily. Who holds the role matters - though Dave Kennedy, who is widely tipped to replace Formby as political director, currently a regional officer in the North West, is widely respected as an operator and is also a McCluskey loyalist, will be very much a "like-for-like" substitution. 

But what matters more is what the role suggests about the most important election over the next parliament, at least as far as the future direction of Labour is concerned, which is the election to decide Unite's next general secretary. As I've written before, the relationship between Jeremy Corbyn and McCluskey is the most important in Labour - small and big l - politics.  It is McCluskey's chief of staff, Andrew Murray, who is the Labour leader's office main point-of-communication with Tom Watson, the party's deputy.But although Unite endorsed Corbyn, and McCluskey campaigned for him vigorously, McCluskey's first choice for Labour leader was not Corbyn but Andy Burnham. He is very much on probation as far as Unite is concerned. If Labour are unable to mount a successful challenge to the Conservatives and if - and it remains a big "If" - there is a way that McCluskey can combine with Dave Prentis, head of Unison, and Tim Roache, head of the GMB and both Corbynsceptics, to remove Corbyn, he will do so.

But in the meantime, McCluskey needs Corbyn just as much as Corbyn needs him. Corbyn reaches into parts of Unite's left that supported McCluskey only grudgingly in his last re-election battle. McCluskey is caught in a difficult position - he has to keep on side those Unite workers who depend on Trident for their jobs, see off the threat of the GMB who are competing with Unite for members in the defence industry - and do all that without opening himself up to an organised challenge from his left. And if that wasn't difficult enough, he must see off the members of his union who are trying to use age as an excuse to disqualify him (McCluskey, who looks and sounds much younger than he is, will be 67 at the time of the next general secretary election), believing that they cannot defeat him at the ballot box but can keep him off the ballot.

Where does Formby come in? Moving her from the office of the general secretary to the South West will mean that a McCluskey loyalist will be well-placed to turn out votes for him should he make it to the contest, something which also looks more likely. (Internal enemies of McCluskey have shifted from talking about "if" he makes the next contest to "when"). That means that, at present, McCluskey remains well-placed to stay on top of Unite not just until 2018 but for the forseeable future. 

Update, 23/02/2016:

Unite have released a statement: 

"Stephen Bush’s claim that Len McCluskey's "first choice for Labour leader was not Corbyn but Andy Burnham" is entirely incorrect.

At no point has Len McCluskey expressed a view that he preferred a candidate other than Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader.

Len McCluskey was and remains delighted to support Jeremy Corbyn because of the tremendous opportunity his candidacy offered to renew the Labour party."

 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.