Alan Johnson and Len McCluskey both need to calm down

Luke Akehurst

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

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…