What might be driving the Johnson/McCluskey war of words?

19th February, 2013 10:38 am

Yesterday I wrote about the row between Alan Johnson and Len McCluskey – now I want to explain what might be driving it.

Much of the heat in this is about the current round of parliamentary selections. The left has correctly clocked that the PLP is further to the right than they would like it to be. That’s because ordinary members have chosen in most cases to select moderate MPs in all the recent rounds of selections. It is the left and the union’s prerogative to try to organise harder to get more leftwingers or more people who will pursue a union agenda selected. I should note that the two are not necessarily the same thing – to their credit the major trade unions have backed several candidates in this round of selections who are definitely not on the left of Labour but are long-term trade unionists. This is at it should be. It is also the prerogative of Progress to support candidates they feel share their values.  Many of them will be active trade unionists and/or identifiably working class too. That’s all part of a healthy intra-party democracy.

But all protagonists in the complex game of chess around selections – and the protagonists are not limited by any means to the two I’ve mentioned – need to do a reality check.

They can push and promote and support people as much as they like. They can tweak the rule a bit to favour underrepresented demographic groups. But the final decision in all except two cases in the last four general elections (one of which was Alan Johnson’s seat!)  has been taken by ordinary members in the CLP concerned. Often it’s the only chance they get to pick a candidate in decades if that person then becomes the MP. They react badly to any organisation, whether a faction or an affiliate, interfering heavy-handedly in their choice. Because the paradigm that this is a national choice of a new intake of the PLP, which national interests are seeking to shape around the ideological and demographic profile of the new MPs, isn’t how the local CLP sees it. They don’t care if all the others have picked candidates from one social class or one type of politics, they are choosing their candidate that they will have to work with for years to come. They particularly react badly to negative campaigning in selections.

The vast majority of ordinary party members and indeed trade unionists resist efforts to categorise them by faction or placing on Labour’s spectrum of opinion. Most don’t see themselves as left or right but as loyalists to Labour. They cheered as loud for Blair as for Brown as for Ed Miliband.

When they pick a candidate to run as MP they may be interested in which faction or affiliate is backing them but that will come below the following questions in salience:

  • Do I like this person? I’m going to have to listen to them at meetings for a decade or two!
  • Does this person inspire me? Will they get me leafleting in the rain?
  • Will people who live around me be more likely to vote Labour if this person is the candidate?
  • Have they got a track record of working hard in the Party and as an election campaigner?
  • Have I heard of this person i.e. have they done anything noteworthy nationally or regionally or are they active as a councillor or campaigner in this locality?
  • Will this person do something positive for the constituency, the CLP and the PLP?

The unions should make sure everyone they promote in selections can tick all those boxes, push a positive narrative about them and then they’ll win a fair share of them, rather than fulminating about a Progress bogeyman or class bias. I want more working class candidates but the road to that is to support and train them, not to disrespect candidates from other backgrounds. And certainly not to allow a lazy and counterproductive narrative to develop that working class = leftwing.

The other factor driving things is Len’s re-election campaign for Unite General Secretary. Given his only opponent looks set to be the SWP-backed Jerry Hicks, it is understandable that Len is tacking to the left to pick up swing votes choosing between the two. But it’s strategically misguided. There are a lot of moderate members in Unite, people like me. Len needs to chuck us the occasional political bone if he wants us be motivated to vote for him when confronted by a McCluskey vs Hicks ballot paper. He shouldn’t make the mistake Denis Healey did when he ran for the Party leadership of assuming people to his right have “nowhere else to go”.

The fact that in a union that inherited the traditions of Ernie Bevin and Sir Ken Jackson there isn’t a candidate to Len’s right exposes the tragedy behind Alan Johnson’s evident frustration with the current direction of trade union leaders. We – the moderate wing of Unite – haven’t put up a candidate. Instead we have Alan and a few bloggers throwing the occasional rhetorical hand grenade at Len from the sidelines. I’m inclined towards a little more humility. When we have a candidate in the ring in a future General Secretary election we can engage in a vigorous debate about where the union goes. But at the moment there’s no point mouthing off about where Unite is headed when we haven’t even got a candidate running to lead the union. It’s no use complaining about the current union leaders if you don’t put forward an alternative for ordinary trade unionists to vote for.

I wanted to finish by saying that I don’t think the party divides neatly into the binary Blairites vs the left alignment the debate between Alan and Len suggests. It’s a false choice. Ordinary members aren’t pigeon-holed like that, nor are our leaders. Ed himself, many of the Shadow Cabinet and most of our MPs aren’t at either end of that spectrum.

For me, I find both visions frustrating.

I want to win back the voters we lost between 1997 and 2010 but I don’t think either re-heated high-Blairism or disinterred Bennism are the way to do it.

I refuse to choose between my trade unionism and my proud identification with the right of the Party.

I disagree fundamentally with Len’s position on defence and foreign policy, too much of which is influenced by people in his inner circle who think the wrong side lost the Cold War.

But I also disagree with Alan’s promotion of public service reform if that means marketisation and cobblers about “choice”.

I deplore Len’s recent irresponsible urging of councillors to set illegal “no cuts” budgets.

I won’t back Alan’s call for reduced union voting strength in the party. I will fight to defend the role of our affiliates.

I can’t stand Len’s disrespectful attitude towards Tony Blair and our achievements in government, or when he tries to portray Blairites as alien to the traditions and values of our movement.

But nor can I stand hearing Blairites disrespect Gordon Brown’s contribution.

I am sure many other people feel equally frustrated by the attempt to put everyone in one of two boxes.

Luckily we have a leadership – in the broadest sense – and a membership who are refusing to get dragged into this squabble and are focussed on beating the Tories.

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  • Ah yes, Alan Johnson the turncoat whose name is mud in his former union. Remember when the CWU Executive briefly tried to back him out of loyalty in the Deputy Leader election? The members swiftly overturned that decision!

    Ask posties about that ‘selection’ of Johnson as an MP…he signed off on a wildly unpopular agreement with management over the heads of his members, who were ready to lynch him until…just before the 1997 election Tony Blair arrived on the scene with a parachute in hand, elevating Stuart Randall MP to the House of Lords and allowing Johnson a cosy way out of his little predicament. Not that it was any use to his former comrades he’d sold out!

  • Daniel Speight

    But the final decision in all except two cases in the last four general
    elections (one of which was Alan Johnson’s seat!) has been taken by
    ordinary members in the CLP concerned.

    This is dishonest knowing that the CLPs are given an NEC shortlist not of the CLP’s choosing. I think you are playing your old games again.

    • The NEC only picks the shortlist when it’s a late selection or a by-election. There’s no point denying there have been some stitch-ups in those cases, but most selections don’t happen under those circumstances, so the NEC’s role is limited to accepting the result.

  • AlanGiles

    What is this, Mr Akehurst? You didn’t cause enough mischief with your first article, so you think a second one, with a few extra taunts (“The left has correctly clocked that the PLP is further to the right than they would like it to be., and “influenced by people in his inner circle who think the wrong side lost the Cold War”).
    Mr Johnson, like your goodself, is one of yesterdays men. As is Blair and Tony Benn left the Labour backbenches long ago. Even some of the Progress shower are looking towards the BBC and other fields of employment.

    I guess you miss all the attention you got when you were on the NEC. sad. But get over it.

    • John Ruddy

      I dont often agree with Luke, but isnt that quite a personal attack on him, for no other reason than him giving his opinion?
      Arn’t you just proving his point?

      • AlanGiles

        It just seemed another typical example of a right wing LL scribbler pouring petrol on troubled waters. For a start, the suggestion that some people, just because they are not right-wing Labourites ,would have preferred Russia to win the Cold War. A cheap little jibe, totally untrue, but typical of the specious mumbo-jumbo of such writers. PR and RM have similar styles.
        And I repeat Johnson, and LA himself are part of the past, not part of the future. Or at least if you want Labour to win back it’s natural voters, you had better hope that it is, John.

        • John Ruddy

          Totally untrue? I think not – there were certainly some Labour members in the 80’s who thought that.
          What I want is for Labour to be returned to Government. I am sensible enough to know that it can only do that by uniting both those on the left (such as Len McClusky and others) with those on the right (such as Alan johnson and, yes, Luke Akehurst)… Alienate one or the other group and you have a recipee for defeat. You could argue that Tony Blair lost voters on the left which we need to recapture. But we dont win by dumping those on the right in order to do so!

          • AlanGiles

            But never the twain, John. My problem – and I guess that of others like me, is that I feel some figures on the right wing of Labour merely want a slightly lighter blue version of the Conservatives. In essence they agree with much of the Conservatives agenda on welfare reform (Byrne is on record as saying he agrees with three quarters of the Coalition reforms), for one example. You need to have the stamina and experience of a Harold Wilson to keep the left and right of the party in some degree of harmony. Blair was far too fond of pandering to the Daily Mail, and honesty compels me to say that I feel Ed Miliband is more a Blair than a Harold.

        • My reference to the Cold War was a direct reference to Andrew Murray, Unite’s Chief of Staff. Previously employed by the Soviet Novosti press agency, he served until 2011 on the national exec of the Communist Party of Britain. In the CPGB he was in the Straight Left faction – the “tankies” who supported the Moscow line against the Eurocommunists. He is a public defender of North Korea and described Stalin thus in 1999:

          “Next Tuesday is the 120th anniversary of the birth of Josef Stalin. His career is the subject of a vast and ever expanding literature. Read it all and, at the end, you are still left paying your money and taking your choice. A socialist system embracing a third of the world and the defeat of Nazi Germany on the one hand. On the other, all accompanied by harsh measures imposed by a one-party regime. Nevertheless, if you believe that the worst crimes visited on humanity this century, from colonialism to Hiroshima and from concentration camps to mass poverty and unemployment have been caused by imperialism, then [Stalin’s birthday] might at least be a moment to ponder why the authors of those crimes and their hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others. It was, after all, Stalin’s best-known critic, Nikita Khrushchev, who remarked in 1956 that ‘against imperialists, we are all Stalinists’

          • Luke’s right. This is hardly unknown information. If we pretend the circle around McCluskey are people like us, we are sadly mistaken. They are not Labour members, or even supporters.

            And still we continue to defend him. It’s bizarre.

  • “The other factor driving things is Len’s re-election campaign for Unite General Secretary.”

    That’s a very relevant point. A spot of carefully judged radicalism doesn’t usually do much damage to electoral prospects – just think of the broken stake-holder economy promise that helped build Blair’s ’97 landslide. Of course, it is a little unfair to link Len with Blair and I don’t mean to suggest that the former will be as disastrous as latter, far from it – Len has already undertaken valuable reforms within Unite and will have my vote regardless of his views on internal LP matters.

    But there is a broader lesson – I just heard Ed on the radio, talking of meeting business people in Denmark where ‘hire and fire’ employment regulations make the UK look like a nanny state; yet insurance is available to all ‘hard working people’, allowing them to receive 80% of previously earned income for the first year of unemployment. Goodness knows what the growing army of long term unemployed receive – but why should they be allowed to receive something for nothing? Only last week Cruddas was talking-up the prospect of linking benefits to the amount contributed, rather than to need (and why shouldn’t this, like other forms of insurance, be provided by a regulated private sector?) And anyway, the long-term unemployed will probably be so helplessly consumed with hatred of their benefit scrounging, resource draining neighbours they’ll become too emotionally exhausted to address matters elsewhere or even to vote.

    But, as with Blair’s stake-holder promise, Labour will have achieved ‘cut through’ with its redistributive ‘mansion tax’ and that’s what people will remember so the votes may well be in the bag.

    I was browsing Progress websites the other day, one contributor offered a recommendation: ‘Progress: it’s where the ideas are.’ I must admit, I couldn’t disagree, it certainly is. And I think I’ve seen the future.

  • Chilbaldi

    was under the impression this has happened for selections that were neither late nor by-elections in the last few years? The Thurrock shortlist was said by others to be a stitch up for example?

    • The shortlisting in Thurrock was done by the local CLP, It was controversial but nothing to do with the NEC.

  • Chilbaldi

    I was under the impression that Progress was a bit of a yesterday’s organisation? Fewer and fewer MPs like their names to be associated with it. Perhaps this is just to be seen to be cosying up to the leadership team, but still.

  • ColinAdkins

    Can we stop giving oxygen to this infantile spat. The Labour Party is a broad church. It must be if it accomodates former tankies like myself! Let us present our respective arguments in a comradely fashion and counter arguments with which you disagree rationally and without resort to personal insult. Labour Link pull this stupid discussion.


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