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

Luke Akehurst

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.

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…