Miliband vs McCluskey: 2 points that strike me about the Labour/Unite row over alleged candidate selection rigging

by Stephen Tall on July 7, 2013

Looking in from the outside, albeit as a former Labour member myself, two points strike me about the Labour/Unite row over the alleged attempt by the union to rig the selection of the party’s general election candidate in Falkirk.

The first is this:

How lucky is Ed Miliband in his opponent, Len McCluskey?

Yes, you read that right. Ed is lucky in Len. The reason why is simple: Len McCluskey has gone about his attempted putsch of Labour in an extraordinarily cack-handed manner.

If you wanted to set up a comedy caricature trade union boss, you’d make sure he had a salary of £122,000, had called for a general strike, have him make threats against prominent Labour ‘Blairites’, and then protest against the lefty New Statesman when it reports accurately what you’ve said.

If you wanted to be a smart trade union leader, however, you’d operate below-the-radar. You’d do things just the same: ensure your chosen candidate was elected Labour leader (however dubiously), line up your mate to head up the party’s election campaigns, and guarantee loyal union members are installed in as many key seats as possible.

But you’d do so sotto voce. Everything would be arranged oh-so-subtly, with the minimum of fuss and bother. Because you know, and they know you know, and you know they know you know etc, that the Labour party is financially dependent on you, that they cannot possibly hope to win the next election without your support.

Unless, that is, you make it absolutely impossible for the Labour party to stay schtum any longer. And that’s what Len has done. With a carelessness bordering on suicidal recklessness he has trampled over the Labour party in such a blatant manner that no-one — and certainly not a union-hating Tory party and media — is going to let allegedly corrupt rule-breaking pass without comment. He has forced Ed Miliband to stand up to him, given him no choice in the matter.

When a leader is forced to write an article saying (in the first person) how strong they’ve been, it’s a sure sign they’ve been compelled into action from a position of weakness. But Len McCluskey has over-played his hand. Ed Miliband now has to stand up to him, he can dodge the inevitability no longer. It may not feel like it right now, Ed, but that’s luck.

Here’s the second point that strikes me:

Why does it take a political scandal to force Labour and the unions to realise they can’t go on like this?

It’s exactly two years since the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley wrote these words:

The growing bitterness between Labour and the unions … demonstrates that the relationship, as currently configured, is not really serving the best interests of either of them. Even when Labour leaders have considerable sympathy for a union cause, they cannot ally themselves with it for fear of being portrayed as puppets of union paymasters. Even when the unions have been decisive in electing a Labour leader, they do not get the support they feel they deserve. Until the relationship is reformed, Ed Miliband and future Labour leaders will continue to astonish the unions with their ingratitude.

As it happens Andrew Rawnsley was giving Ed Miliband a bit too much credit. The Labour leader hasn’t “astonished the unions with his ingratitude”. Mostly he’s been quite pliant. But, little by little, he has edged towards irking them. Last year, it was his announcement that he backed the Coalition’s pay freeze for public sector workers. More recently, it was his concession that he would stick to the Coalition’s public spending plans if he found himself in Downing Street in 2015.

The more Unite (and other unions) up the ante, the more pressure Ed Miliband will come under to show he’s his own man, that he can’t be pushed around even by his biggest donor. This is the very definition of a dysfunctional relationship. Especially as a majority of Unite’s members don’t even vote for the Labour party.

Gradually, inevitably, the formal Labour/union link will come to an end. Both sides will be happier once it does. The Labour party can reclaim itself for its own genuine supporters. The unions can lobby any and all parties to take up its members’ causes on their own merit. As Kahlil Gibran once said (and I’m sure he was anticipating just this eventuality): “If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.