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The two fault lines of Brexit exposed by Barry Gardiner’s Good Friday Agreement remarks

The shadow international trade secretary claimed the risks to peace of a hard border are being “played up”.

Why did so many Remainers vote for Labour in the 2017 election? Was it Jeremy Corbyn's general bona fides with socially liberal voters, an anti-May vote, or about Brexit?

The real answer, of course, is “all of the above”, with interesting questions raised over which of those pulls is the most important.

But Barry Gardiner has done his bit for the sum of human knowledge after being caught on tape by Labour website The Red Roar talking about the Good Friday Agreement, and Ireland's concerns about it, in language more commonly associated with the DUP. The risks to peace of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland are being played up because of the economic consequences, the shadow international trade secretary has claimed.

The interview has been criticised by Irish politicians across the spectrum and by many in Labour, too, and Gardiner has apologised for the remarks, describing them as “informal” and clarifying that his use of the the word “shibboleth” was referring to its original Biblical meaning as a test of membership, not in the sense of an outdated belief. (Which you'd expect, given that Gardiner once planned to train as a priest.)

But it has exposed two fault lines: one within the opposition, the other within the government. Gardiner is one of the shadow cabinet’s most forceful advocates for a post-Brexit independent trade policy, privately claiming that the United Kingdom could use its trade deals to improve workers’ rights as an agent of left-wing policy internationally. But that involves leaving the customs union and single market: that is to say, it means having to explain away the difficulties of the Irish border.

That problem afflicts the government, too. Also making a fool of himself today is David Davis, who The Times' Henry Zeffman reports told a meeting of business leaders that Leo Varadkar's position on the border is a result of him bowing to pressure from Sinn Fein.

What unites Gardiner and Davis is the essential truth that you cannot reconcile either Labour or the Conservatives’ objectives for Brexit with their promises over the Irish border and their objectives as far as the Good Friday Agreement goes. Something will have to give.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Jeremy Corbyn with Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Exclusive: Len McCluskey accuses Labour MPs of “smearing” Jeremy Corbyn over anti-Semitism

The Unite general secretary warns in the New Statesman that “Corbyn-hater MPs” can “expect to be held to account”. 

Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s largest trade union, has accused Labour MPs of “smearing” Jeremy Corbyn over anti-Semitism. In an article in tomorrow’s New Statesman, the Unite general secretary writes that “this issue has joined a line of others in being used by a group of backbench Labour MPs to attack and undermine Jeremy Corbyn”.

McCluskey, who has been a close ally of Corbyn since the Labour leader was elected in 2015, adds: “I look with disgust at the behaviour of the Corbyn-hater MPs who join forces with the most reactionary elements of the media establishment and I understand why there is a growing demand for mandatory reselection.”

The Unite leader’s article comes after Corbyn acknowledged “the uncomfortable fact” that some Labour members and supporters hold anti-Semitic views. The founder and chair of the pro-Corbyn grassroots organisation Momentum, Jon Lansman, said late last year that Labour must do more to tackle anti-Semitism in the party. In a recent parliamentary debate, Jewish Labour MPs shared examples of the abuse they had received. Earlier today, 50 Labour MPs and peers accompanied the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth when she went to give evidence against an activist she has accused of anti-Semitism. 

In a dramatic intervention in Labour’s ongoing feuds, McCluskey:

 Accuses the Israeli Labour Party leader, Avi Gabbay, of a “cynical and outrageous smear” against Corbyn. Gabbay recently severed relations with Corbyn’s office in response to “the hostility that you have shown to the Jewish community and the anti-Semitic statements and actions you have allowed”. This, McCluskey writes, was a “disgusting libel of which Gabbay should be ashamed”.

 Condemns the “few” anti-Semites in Labour (“any is too many”) and argues that “combating their views is not merely legitimate, but essential”. McCluskey adds: “I have fought anti-Semitism and anti-Semites all my life, including physically on the streets on occasion, and I need no lectures from anyone else on the subject. I am not sure that some of the voluble backbench critics of Jeremy Corbyn can say as much.”

Denounces Labour MPs “such as Chris Leslie, Neil Coyle (my own MP), John Woodcock, Wes Streeting, Ian Austin and others” as “a dismal chorus whose every dirge makes winning a Labour government more difficult”. He accuses them of “working overtime trying to present the Labour Party as a morass of misogyny, anti-Semitism and bullying”.

Writes that he understands why there is “a growing demand for mandatory reselection” of Labour MPs and warns that “promiscuous critics” who “wish to hold Corbyn to account can expect to be held to account themselves”.

Unite, which has donated £11m to Labour since Corbyn’s election and has 1.4 million members, is the party’s largest financial backer and its most powerful affiliate. Jennie Formby, the union’s former political director, recently became Labour’s general secretary and Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff, serves as a part-time consultant to Corbyn. Karie Murphy, the Labour leader’s office director, is also a close ally of McCluskey.

The Unite general secretary, 67, has served as the union’s head since 2011. He was most recently re-elected in 2017 against his rival Gerard Coyne, by 45.4 per cent to 41.5 per cent. Unite endorsed Corbyn during the 2015 leadership election and was crucial to his survival during the 2016 coup attempt.

Though McCluskey writes that Labour MPs “have a right to express their own views”, he adds: “You would have to go back a long way to find such a sustained smearing by MPs of their own leader and their own party as we are seeing now.”

McCluskey continues: “Their determination to divide the party into pro- and anti-Corbyn factions, despite the huge increase in Labour’s vote secured last year... ultimately pollutes everything it touches. That includes the work against anti-Semitism”.

He laments that he “was wrong” to assume that “after the great advances in last year’s general election under Jeremy’s leadership”, Labour rebels would demonstrate loyalty to Corbyn. “To watch as these so-called social democrats tried to demean and attack, in front of our enemy, a decent and honourable man who has fought racism and anti-Semitism all his life and who has breathed life and hope back into the hearts of millions, especially the young, made my stomach churn. To see Tory MPs cheer and applaud them was shameful.”

McCluskey is currently facing a legal challenge by Gerard Coyne, his former leadership rival, who accuses him of breaching election rules by calling a contest when there was no vacancy. Should Jeffrey Burke QC, a retired high court judge, rule in Coyne's favour, the 2017 general secretary result will be annulled and a re-run held.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.