Alan Johnson and Len McCluskey both need to calm down

February 18, 2013 2:34 pm

I had been resisting the temptation to step in between Alan Johnson and Len McCluskey and shout the online version of “back off, he ain’t worth it” at them both. I might be running the risk of getting politically thumped by both sides.

But I think someone needs to tell them both to calm down.

Both their recent articles had huge chunks of common sense, but these floated in a headline-grabbing soup of confrontation and adversarialism that doesn’t reflect the wider mood in the Labour Party, which is one of unity and optimism.

It’s not that I’m against confrontation, regular readers will know I relish a good argument, but in this case it all seems a bit cooked up, a bit inappropriate for the status of the participants (generally I would expect the General Secretary of the Party’s largest affiliate and a former Home Secretary to be a little more decorous in their style of debate, than, say, me and Owen Jones), and a bit daft given that the strategy adopted by Ed Miliband, which is somewhere in between those advocated by Alan and Len (or perhaps better described in Marxist terms as a synthesis), is working rather well.

It’s not surprising they have wound each other up, as both have proposed existential threats to the other’s role in the Party or sought to delegitimise each other as valid participants in Labour’s internal debates. Len talked last year about “Blairite cuckoos” being “kicked out of the nest”, though earlier in 2012 he had disagreed with proposals from the GMB about banning the New Labour Progress organisation in some way. Alan’s interview calls for the unions’ power within the party’s policymaking process to be dramatically cut.

Both understandably find the others’ language threatening, so escalate their own rhetoric.

They are both wrong. Blairites have a legitimate role to play in Labour’s future. And so do trade unionists. There are quite a few people who fall into both categories.

Talk of kicking anyone out, or reducing anyone’s say in selections or policy-making is divisive, boorish (“I don’t like your ideas so I am going to throw you out or reduce your say, yah boo!”) and exactly the kind of navel-gazing constitutional row we wasted years on in the 1980s.

Progress can’t complain about threats to their role in the Party if they start talking about reducing the union role in the Party through cuts to voting strength at conference or a primary rather than an electoral college for picking the next candidate for London Mayor. And vice versa – the unions can’t expect Progress to play nicely when they get roughed up like they did last year.

A period of detente is needed on both sides because a lot of energy and political capital is being wasted on macho threats that could only be followed through at the risk of great damage to the Party.

We would be better served if senior figures looked at what we had in common, rather than what divided us, and how we can all contribute together to a Labour victory. It won’t be by making the Party smaller on either wing.

This kind of stuff is so far from the positive mood on the campaign trail and in CLPs and Labour Groups that it sounds like it is from another planet.

The language Alan used wasn’t comradely. I was horrified that Alan talked about “fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming”. What has the weight or skin colour of trade union leaders got to do with anything? I thought basic politeness, let alone our political values, meant we didn’t attack people on the basis of their physical appearance. As a fat (-ish), white guy with ginger hair, specs and a walking stick I really don’t want a Labour Party where people insult each other’s appearance. Save that for the playground. Also, a large number of voters are fat, white blokes!

But then nor should Len have allowed his article – which in the body of the text was rather more considered – to run with a headline describing a rival body of opinion in the Party as “zombies”. These are fellow Party members you disagree with on some policies Len, not monsters from a horror movie.

Some of the positive initiatives being taken by Unite have ended up described, by Unite, in terms which make them unnecessarily threatening. So the Unite Political Strategy’s admirable focus on recruiting 5,000 members from Unite into CLP activism gets couched in takeover-style language about “reclaiming the Party” which makes people feel threatened and worried some behemoth of a union faction is about to hijack the CLP they have dedicated years of voluntary activity to. The reality is rather more prosaic but also more positive. In my CLP it has led to a really good new activist, a bus driver and Unite lay official, coming out canvassing, becoming a delegate to the GC, and putting himself forward for Hackney Council.

That’s the reality of the union link, individual trade unionists becoming valued Labour activists and office holders, not some gigantic external force throwing its weight around.

Tomorrow on LabourList, Luke will be taking a look at what he believes is driving such rows within the party

  • Edward Davie

    Spot on Luke – everyone should calm down and get on with the job at hand: attacking the awful government, defnding our constituents, campaigning and constructively contributing to policy formulation.

  • Ben Cobley

    Though the hurling around of personal insults is obviously out of order, I don’t agree that discussing issues of process is unimportant and navel-gazing: on the contrary it is very important (democracy or dictatorship is a matter of process; how we do things is who we are).

    For my own half-penny’s-worth I agree that trade unions should continue to have a role, but Labour’s relationship with Unite and Unison has become one of unhealthy mutual dependence, clinging on to each other for dear life – for power and influence on one side and hard cash on the other. I can’t help thinking that damages both of them, taking them away from their core ideal purposes as mass membership institutions.

    Core negotiations about where power lies take place behind the scenes and are seemingly not even communicated to members. That is not a healthy state of affairs for a supposedly democratic party.

  • Ben Cobley

    Though the hurling around of personal insults is obviously out of order, I don’t agree that discussing issues of process is unimportant and navel-gazing: on the contrary it is very important (democracy or dictatorship is a matter of process; how we do things is who we are).

    For my own half-penny’s-worth I agree that trade unions should continue to have a role, but Labour’s relationship with Unite and Unison has become one of unhealthy mutual dependence, clinging on to each other for dear life – for power and influence on one side and hard cash on the other. I can’t help thinking that damages both of them, taking them away from their core ideal purposes as mass membership institutions.

    Core negotiations about where power lies take place behind the scenes and are seemingly not even communicated to members. That is not a healthy state of affairs for a supposedly democratic party.

  • aracataca

    What an awful lot of sense Luke. Insulting people on the basis of their physical size is reminiscent of the school playground. To be fair Len reserves his jabbing finger and raised voice for the mass rallies because when the negotiating room door is closed he is perfect pragmatist. On the other hand the GMB’s existential threat to Progress was simply silly and puerile posturing. The hegemonic position of the Blairites over the party is over.In the current situation they have an influence over policy just like every other political tradition within the Labour movement. We must let them know this in a gentle and accommodating manner.

  • robertcp

    I agree. Labour is doing well at the moment because it has not had a civil war nor lost lots of votes by moving to the hard left. One or both of both of these happened in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s.

  • MarkHoulbrook

    “Blairites have a legitimate role to play in Labours future”

    Luke has given the false impression that Progress and Blairites are good for our time. It is very healthy to disagree particular on contributions that have no substance or rationale thinking. Len McCluskey made his comments some considerable time ago. These comments still stand the test of time, that is, there is really no space for a continuation of Blairite philosophy. The market and state relations under New Labour have created the very conditions that we now face. Immigration out of control, white working class apathy, top down control freakery. fragmented communities. failed education projects, banking system in crisis, war mongering.

    Luke seems to forget that Alan Johnson came from unions roots and understands what is behind the finger jabbing. What Labour needs is action not words. Writing articles alongside twitter virtual reality is a long way from real grassroot activity. There is no room at the inn for Blairite, anti union, parliamentary representatives. Labour under Blairite influence presents people with a choice of “One Nation, Two Tier”

    A party of the political elite and a party of grassroot activists.

    Which one do fall under Luke?

  • Daniel Speight

    Alan Johnson has made a better job of being on Andrew Neil’s sofa than he has in most other roles he has attempted. He has become an able replacement for Diane Abbott in partnering Michael Portillo. Could I possibly suggest he concentrates on This Week for the next year or so. At least it would keep Jacqui Smith off our screens.

    • John Reid

      And diane Abbott.

  • Daniel Speight

    On reflection Luke’s post deserves something a bit more than my attempt at humour, so here goes.

    There has always been a large range of views inside the Labour Party ranging from the far left to the far right. (One should remember that ex-Conservative Oswald Mosley was a Labour cabinet minister in 1929.) Only when the extremes move away from supporting social democracy can there be a case made for them being forced out of the party.

    The system Labour used to organize with such disparate views was one of checks and balances very much along the lines of modern democracies. It involved having three main power bases inside the party, with the PLP, the CLPs and the unions. To force through policies it needed two of the three to be in agreement and even then the third would still have some dampening effect on the other two.

    At times even this could not save the party from grievous splits, such as the Ramsay MacDonald betrayal, the Gang of Four’s desertion or Kinnock’s battle with Militant. But as a rule the triangular power base worked quite well, even though it tended to move the party to the right. (The union vote seemed to be more often aligned with the PLP, while the constituency party vote was more to left.)

    The rise of ‘New’ Labour changed this, and I suspect many would agree with me that this wasn’t a change for the better. We ended up with a far more centralized, top down controlled party than before. Gone also was the role of the annual conference to at least attempt to embarrass the leadership if they strolled too far off the path and became too enamoured by their rich London friends and surroundings.

    So to see a right-wing PLP member in a fight with a left-wing union leader isn’t too bad. At least we are not back to having bullying leaders forcing through their ideas on the rest of the party.

    • John Reid

      the rise of New labour wasn’t for the better, what we won 3 elections after that, Was that a bad thing?

  • AlanGiles

    “Blairites have a legitimate role to play in Labour’s future”
    Yes. As the BBCs Director of Digital Services……..

  • Dick Muskett

    coincidentally just been re-reading a biography of Barbara Castle, which deals with the protracted period where Bevan, Castle, Cripps, Crossman et al (including one Harold Wilson) fought to prise control of the Party from the hands of right-wing trade union leaders like the T&G’s Arthur Deakin. Something called the block vote seems to have angered the Keep Left Group……. plus ca change eh? even if its the other way round.

  • Stuart Bruce

    Luke says much of what I’d say. If we strip away the rhetoric from what Alan Johnson said it was basically that the Labour Party has done a lot to adapt to the massive shifts in society that have occurred and that unions haven’t done as much. That’s true. What is also true is that if unions are to have a real future representing working people then they need to get better at it. If you step outside our ‘political bubble’ and try to convince young people that it is worth paying a lot of money (union membership is expensive) to join it’s hard. The ‘offer’ either isn’t good enough or isn’t explained in a compelling enough way.

    The trade union link is absolutely vital to the Labour Party and my fear is that it the unions that risk breaking it as they cease to become relevant to the wider population. Unless they do a better job of recruiting members and representing working people it is inevitable that their role in the Labour Party will be questioned. That will be a bad thing so unions must modernise and maintain their role within the Labour Party.

    • Redshift1

      The assumption here of course is that all of the adaptation that the Labour Party has done has been positive in terms of boosting its popularity. It also assumes that Alan Johnson actually realises that the same ‘adaptations’ Labour made in the 90s are the same ‘adaptations’ they need to make now to be popular. I for one, don’t think he knows the difference. I think he’s out of touch.

      There is also a quite bizarre ignorance of the diversity within the trade union movement here. I say bizarre because it is huge and heterogeneous compared to the Labour Party, so as a result they are as broad-brushed as they are ill-informed. Ironically, as an ex-trade union leader himself, Alan Johnson actually played up to the same ignorance.

      Unite actually announced a few days before Johnson’s piece that their membership had risen by 50,000 over the past year, which is quite impressive.

  • Luke Akehurst

    Hi Mark
    I wrote my article on Sunday evening after spending the morning leading a canvassing team around the Woodberry Down Estate with my local MP Diane Abbott, then the afternoon doing data entry of the canvass returns, then spent last night phone canvassing,
    I think I therefore pass your test about action as well as words. So do most of the Blairites I know – a glance at Twitter would show most of the leading lights in Progress spent the weekend campaigning in Eastleigh.

    • MarkHoulbrook

      Hello Luke, Thank you for your reply. I note the contents of your response. I also note that one has the time to be able to canvass in your local area. This is commended. However, I am missing something here. There is an expectation within the rank and file of the NEC and the Labour Party that JUST campaigning, JUST canvassing and JUST twittering is accepted as the grassroot activism that is recognised. This is clearly not the case. It is only part of it, albeit an important part. I understand that you are a Llocal councillor and a NEC representative which one would imagine would take up much more of your time. You could be even one those hardworking grassroot loyal activists who work full time. You may even be a secretary or chair of a CLP, or even a campaign organiser, a communication officer or a casworker for your local MP. You may also attend meetings. LGC, EC, GC and be a regular contributor to forum and thinktanks like Progress. You may even find time to twitter all day long and play virtual reality politics. The reality is this activism within the party and not activism within a local community. I will give you a some spice of what I am relating to. Grassroot activism is about working with local people to better and change their.lives, to be involved in a local voluntary groups, organise events like Queens jubilee, Christmas fayres, xmas events, Community shows, community forums, Pacts meetings, history societies, facilitating and participating in community facilities. CAB, Without insulting your intelligence this extra to just turning up a local government labour group..have a whinge and whine about what the Labour Party should be doing local then go home and do nothing. Party activism is not just about turning up on a Sunday morning placing a few leaflets through the door. Party activism is not about wasting labour members and supporters time by using Voter ID system that exclude knocking on every door at the expense of relying on the community labour faithful. Correct me if I am wrong this is precisely the reason we lost Bradford because of comfort room politics.

    • MarkHoulbrook

      The leading lights of Progress and the Blairites as you state, indeed find time to travel south, and twitter all day, have a nice photo shoot. place it on their website for all to see and spend days away from parliament, their CLP office and their community in which they live and serve. Whilst you may be the exception to the rule we both know the reality is that there is not much grassroot activism going on. What makes Refounding Labour a farce is that there are footsoldiers and there are the political elite. The managerialism in the party has returned and with One Nation philosophy there is a Two Tier system at work. A party of the political elite and a party of grassroot labour activists, which in giving you some credit you may be one. I also know Blairites, as you know, who through the propaganda machine appear to be doing lots in their community but the realityis they are doing nothing. This has been proven.

  • Daniel Speight

    John, is that the only defense you wish to make of ‘New Labour’? Do you agree with the top-down centralized control system they put in place? Where do you see party democracy heading? Would you prefer a one-off presidential style vote to give total control of the party to one person?

  • Chris

    Labour was better in the ’80s.

  • Redshift1

    Alan Johnson’s piece was plain idiotic. Len to be fair, was more measured.


  • Comment Englishness is something we should champion, not fear

    Englishness is something we should champion, not fear

    Happy St. George’s Day! You might ask, what does that even mean? – if I said that to you. And my response to that would be: “exactly.” But you know what? I’m proud to be English. Yes, I said it. I like living in England (well, London). I like our sense of humour, many of our institutions, the constant march of secularism, atheism and tolerance (occasional hiccups aside), the over-the-top drinking culture, and our utter mediocrity at most sports. Its […]

    Read more →
  • Comment UKIP, England and St George

    UKIP, England and St George

    Labour tends to view UKIP like Nelson viewed the signal at the Battle of Copenhagen. He held the telescope to his blind eye and said, ‘I really do not see the signal’.  Our image of  UKIP is a protest vehicle for disaffected, older, right wing Tories in the South. But UKIP represents more significant trends than this caricature suggests. UKIP is a symptom of the deep social and economic changes that have taken place over the last thirty years. Its […]

    Read more →
  • Featured England has a radical tradition Labour can embrace

    England has a radical tradition Labour can embrace

    St George’s Day seldom goes by without some features editor asking me to compile a list of things that define Englishness. It’s a pointless task. Top of my list of would be a love of Marmite, yet such a choice would immediately rule out half the population of England. The simple truth is that nations cannot be defined by character alone. It’s those things that we possess that other nations do not that truly define us: our society, our geography, […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Is Labour ready to appeal unashamedly to England?

    Is Labour ready to appeal unashamedly to England?

    Is Labour ready to appeal unashamedly to England? Whilst many party members feel (as I do) more British than English, that actually makes it more important to answer the question. Because whilst the Labour Party has in the past decade been more than comfortable in speaking directly to Scotland (something which is obviously in focus at the moment) and Wales (somewhere that is obviously under fire from the Tories at the moment), the same can’t be said about England. Sure, we’ve […]

    Read more →
  • News Why are the Lib Dems so shy?

    Why are the Lib Dems so shy?

    Regular readers will know that we’re always keeping an eye on Lib Dems leaflets. Their local propaganda sheets are always good for a questionable bar chart, or forgetting the name of the generic place their text is for – but they can also be quite shy about their party affiliation too. For example, take the “Islington Chronicle”. Sounds like a local paper, and there’s no Lib Dem logo and barely a splash of their trademark yellow. But it is, in […]

    Read more →