On Friday, for the second time in recent weeks, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey said something really important and dangerous that ought to have caused a reaction across the entire labour movement and Labour Party. But virtually no one reacted.
According to the Guardian Len “repeated his warning that his members may force a split from Labour and urge support for a new workers’ party if Miliband fails to set out a radical vision to inspire people before the next election.” A few weeks ago he said “Can I ever envisage a rules conference voting to disaffiliate from Labour? I can do – and that’s a challenge to Ed Miliband because I believe the Labour party is at a crossroads. If Labour lost the election next May, I fear for the future of the Labour party”. According to the Independent Len “implied that a newly formed Workers’ Party would then join the Liberal Democrats and others in campaigning for MPs to be elected under a system of proportional representation (PR), to give the new party a better chance of gaining a toehold in Parliament”.
It has been reported elsewhere in the national press that up to 15 Labour MPs are lined up to defect to this new left-of-Labour party if we lose the General Election.
I think this kind of talk is deplorable.
We have just had a debate about the Collins Review where I and many others fought hard to ensure trade unions kept their collective voice in the Labour Party’s structures.
We argued that we never wanted anyone to be put in the agonising situation of having to choose between the Party and the trade union they love; that the affiliated unions are an intrinsic part of the Party they created just as the CLPs are; and for the unity of the industrial and political wings of the movement.
It is deeply ironic and inappropriate then to see the General Secretary of our largest affiliate hint that its affiliation could be unpicked from the left and that its relationship with Labour is somehow conditional on Ed Miliband acceding to certain policy demands.
It’s actually morally dubious to play a role in Labour’s policy making process – Unite has a huge block of votes at the National Policy Forum which will decide Labour’s key policies for the manifesto – but hint that you will walk out if you don’t like the outcome of the debate.
I think Len overstates his case when he claims there is a “fight for the future of the party”. If there is, no one told the members, who are more united than they have been at any time in my 26 years in the Party and are resolutely focussed on campaigning for a Labour victory. There is a debate about the tone of the manifesto but to suggest as Len does that one side in that debate is promoting “austerity-lite” is insulting and a misrepresentation.
The irony is that I have always considered myself on Labour’s right but I agree with Len that Labour needs a bold approach to the General Election and I don’t actually have a problem with many of the specific policies Len wants in the manifesto. The Guardian says Unite “has put forward detailed alternatives to the government’s austerity measures, including the creation of a British investment bank, a housebuilding programme and a rise in the minimum wage.” I can sign up to all of those.
Len and Unite are entitled to promote their own vision of what Labour’s policies should be and who Labour’s candidates should be through the Party’s democratic structures. But speculating about a breakaway party crosses a red line. Any proposal to break the link between Labour and the unions, from whatever quarter, is a threat to the unity of the movement and needs to be categorically opposed.
Such a breakaway party would have extremely limited appeal as ordinary working people in Britain, including Unite members, have an extremely loyal attachment to the Labour Party and no interest in far left policies. It would be like a leftwing version of the SDP, short-lived, doomed to fail, but able in the short-term to split and weaken Labour and keep the Tories in power. A breakaway party would be viewed with the same contempt reserved for previous splitters like Ramsay MacDonald and the SDP Gang of Four.
In the event that it did happen, just as the primary responsibility for fighting the SDP fell on loyal Labour moderates like Healey, Hattersley and Smith, so the primary responsibility for fighting a leftwing breakaway would fall on Labour’s left. They can save themselves a lot of trouble by speaking out now to condemn the proposal and making sure it never gets enough critical mass to succeed. They have a vested interest in this, as a leftwing breakaway would damage the whole Labour Party electorally and financially but particularly weaken the leftwing rump within Labour in our internal debates and elections.
There is an intrinsic logical flaw to the scenario Len floats. If we lose the General Election, it will be because the vast majority of voters have opted for Tory, Lib Dem or UKIP, parties well to our right. This would suggest that the electoral market for a party to the left of Labour is miniscule. But then this is also suggested by any time spent interacting with working class voters on the doorstep, and by the miserable history of previous far left parties like Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. If Scargill couldn’t persuade former miners to stop voting Labour, with all the status he carried in the NUM, it is hard to see many Unite members following a call to start backing a new Workers’ Party. And all the union money in the world won’t break the attachment ordinary working people feel towards Labour, any more than Lord Sainsbury’s funding of the SDP could make that a sustainable alternative to Labour.
Rule 22.2 of the Unite Rule Book states that:
“Neither the Union, nor any constituent part of the Union, shall affiliate to or give support to the candidates of any other political party in Great Britain and Northern Ireland other than the Labour Party.”
As a Unite member I expect my General Secretary to uphold, defend and promote that rule. I voted for Len in two successive General Secretary elections because he was the candidate who was a Labour member, standing against a far left candidate who wants to break the link.
When it comes to Unite’s relationship with Labour, Len needs to spend more time listening to the hundreds of Unite members who are dedicated and loyal Labour MPs, councillors and activists. He needs to tell the assorted Trots and Stalinists who are working within the union to break its historic link with Labour – so their far left micro-parties or pet projects can get the funding Unite currently gives Labour – that they can take a running jump.
We need unity and loyalty now, with crucial local and Euro elections on May 22nd. We will need unity and loyalty more than ever next year whether we win the General Election and inherit a huge mess that will need tough decisions to turn around, or particularly if we lose.
I urge everyone, from Trade Union General Secretaries downwards, to conduct the debate about what should be in Labour’s programme for government in a comradely and democratic way, accept the outcome and fight together for a Labour victory. Veiled threats and hints about breakaways are inappropriate and Len has a far more positive role to play in returning Labour to power so it can deliver for his members as well as the whole country.