Len McCluskey and Theresa May want the same thing from the next election

Both believe their parties should try and win the small towns that went Tory – or almost did – in 2017. 

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It isn’t often that Theresa May and Len McCluskey are on the same page. But in recent weeks the Prime Minister and Unite’s general secretary have developed an unlikely knack for reaching the same conclusions.

First came Heathrow, for which both back expansion. The second, revealed today, is less obvious. McCluskey spoke at Unite’s annual conference and told Corbynsceptic MPs to “put a sock in it” and cut out their “feral smearing” of the Labour leader. Lines like that make for good copy but ultimately don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Nor was this even the most interesting line in the speech itself. 

That, arguably, was McCluskey’s appeal to Jeremy Corbyn to “test every policy against how it is going to play in Walsall and Wakefield, Mansfield and Middlesbrough, Glasgow and Gateshead” and not rely on gains in London to deliver a majority. 

Glasgow and Gateshead aside, those places are all home to constituencies where Labour lost, or came within a couple of thousands of votes of losing, to the Conservatives last June. Put crudely, they are post-industrial towns and cities where Corbyn goes down badly. 

McCluskey is not the only person who is conscious of the significance of these places. Tories share his belief that they could decide the next election. Mansfield, which turned blue for the first time last June and is frequently invoked by both Tories and Corbynsceptics as a totem of what might have been in 2017, is the word on everyone’s lips. 

“Number 10 has decided that, as long as the current malaise lasts, Battersea is lost and we need to be focussing on the Mansfields,” one Tory MP told me recently. “What the government says and does has to be understood in that context.”

As Stephen wrote in his column last month, Tories take solace in the idea that towns such as Mansfield are their lifebelt against defeat at the next general election. But it is too soon to tell whether such seats would automatically blanch from sending Corbyn to Downing Street, or whether Labour majorities will continue bleeding out. 

Nonetheless, the fact that both McCluskey and May share the same analysis reflects the extent to which both sides still believe such seats are in play – and just how high the stakes are.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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