Luke Akehurst was absolutely correct to underscore the importance of unity against our collective enemy – the Tory Party and this Coalition government. He also has a point when he argues against the pigeon-holing of comrades within the Labour Party into simplistic factions, such as the Blairites or the Brownites. However, this is not to say there is not a genuine debate to be had over the future direction of the Labour Party.
In healthy democratic debate the use of language is very important. Therefore, while the title of the New Statesman article which referenced ‘Blairite zombies’ may have stretched the limits of this comradely debate, I’m sure Luke is media savvy enough to know that headlines, in the main, are the preserve of the sub-editor – as was the case this time. I felt that the headline was crass and in a way undermined the essence of comradely debate. The article’s content was actually a considered case of how the unions are changing in the 21st Century and their future integral role within the Labour Party.
Luke’s naivety cannot stretch so far as to presume there is not a genuine struggle for the future direction of the Labour Party. The type of policy and the programme for government that Ed Miliband presents to the electorate in 2015 will determine whether he wins or loses that election. Let’s be clear, Ed Miliband has a range of voices seeking to influence the direction in which he takes the Party. Progress openly pressures Miliband to revamp the failed neo-liberal policies of the last decade – even publishing its own manifesto ‘The Purple Papers’.
This stance is in stark contrast to the vision presented by trade unions like Unite, for instance calling for investment-led economic growth and an end to the low-growth low-wage economy through greater trade union freedoms and tighter controls over the market.
It is also not correct for Luke to assert that ‘the vast majority of ordinary party members and indeed trade unionists resist efforts to categorise them by faction’ or that ‘most don’t see themselves as left or right but as loyalists to Labour’. Those who are, in this sense, blindly loyal to the Labour Party and its successive leaders are usually those blinded by their own political ambition. Ordinary Labour Party members or trade union members all too often feel that the party of working people has moved too far away from their values. Indeed too many have left our ranks for just this reason. Those that want the Labour Party to embrace the failed neo-liberal agenda of the post-1970s simply want to morph it into something it was never supposed to be.
Luke does correctly identify Alan Johnson’s motives for attacking me using comments attributed to me from last September calling for ‘Blairite cuckoos’ to be kicked out the nest. Let’s not forget that these comments were made when Ed Miliband was still regularly being briefed against by colleagues identifiably on the right of the party. Johnson’s attack comes amid growing trade union activity within the Labour Party at constituency level and as part of the selection processes for prospective Labour Party candidates. The free-run Progress and the right has had winning selections has for the first time come under threat and Alan Johnson is clearly getting nervous.
Unite’s position on working class candidates is also clearer than its opponents like to pretend. It is right that the ruling body of the Labour Party voted to recognise working class representation as a Labour Party ideal. Unite shares this ambition. However, the political strategy of people our union is to have more MPs that share core trade union values and will support policies that will benefit Unite’s 1.5 million members – irrespective of an individual’s class.
It is true that I am in the middle of a General Secretary election but Luke’s assertion that any outburst against elements in the Labour Party will boost support are rather far-fetched. Since taking office in 2010, I have worked with our talented team of staff and officers to bring together two of the UK’s largest trade unions and turned Unite, with 1.5 million members, into a unified and cohesive organisation. By always backing industrial decisions of rank and file members, support comes from across every section and sector of Unite. The lack of a ‘candidate of the right’ in the General Secretary election demonstrates this unity.
Luke also identifies elements of Unite policy that he disagrees with and seemingly attributes these to the General Secretary when Unite policy is determined unambiguously by its executive and lay members. This is the case on foreign policy and on Unite’s opposition to the cuts. I have spoken in strong terms against Coalition cuts , giving support to protests, civil disobedience and resistance against austerity, but I have not called for illegal budgets to be set by councils or for people to break the law.
Unite opposed the freeze on public sector pay – just as we reject austerity – because it hurts ordinary people’s living standards and is wrong for the economy and our nation. The union rightly calls on its Labour councillors to do the maximum possible to oppose the cuts by whatever means possible. Unite wants councils, communities, trade unions and the Labour Party to work together to build a movement to fight austerity. Many will agree with the frustration that, too often, Labour politicians get lost in a managerial approach, applauding themselves for their efficiency and rationalisation as they letting the Tories off the hook.
Labour Party activists from all sides of the political spectrum would do well to show more humility and respect to our comrades in the trade union movement. They connect us to millions of our voters. They ground us in workplaces and communities. They remind Labour that the collective is at the heart of our cause, because, as Harold Wilson once observed, our party is a cause or it is nothing at all.
Len McCluskey is General Secretary of Unite