As the Labour party gather in Manchester for their annual conference this weekend I hope Ed Miliband and the party faithful avoid reading the newspapers.
Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite union, made the front page of the Sunday Times today with his plans to pull the Labour party leftwards in a vain attempt to consolidate with their classic socialist birthmark and ‘kick the New Labour cuckoos out of our nest’.
The incendiary comments arrive at one of the biggest moments of the Labour calendar and are astutely timed for the outspoken McCluskey, a former dock worker, to garner some significant headline space.
No stranger to firebrand rhetoric, McCluskey, recipient of a handsome £149,312 per year salary, holds a lofty influence in the running of the Labour party due to his 1.5 million strong union’s annual £3 million in donations to Labour. Being the party’s largest backer means he cannot be ignored by Miliband.
Despite his union’s unequivocal backing of Ed Miliband during the party’s leadership contest two years ago, McCluskey has given the clearest signs yet that this support is far from set in stone.
“The Labour Party has no God-given right to exist. The Labour party can only exist if it is the voice of ordinary working people and in particular of organised labour”
His union’s ambition of reclaiming the party to a renewed socialist agenda comes at a time when Ed Miliband manoeuvres to break from the image of his party being ‘in the pockets of the unions’.
Although Miliband denied an direct amputation of Labour’s historic union links he put his party’s navigational path forward in a no-nonsense statement
“There is no future for this party as the party of one sectional interest of society”
Whilst Ed is far from adhering to any definition of ‘Blairite’, many influential union members seek to decorticate the party’s prominent Blairite contingent with the pressure group, Progress, on the eradication list. Key members of this group hold persuasive positions within the party with Andrew Adonis, Stephen Twigg and Peter Mandelson all claiming membership. The attempts to marginalise the influence of this party faction will no doubt force Miliband to pull in the other direction as he conveys his intention to resist the power of his wealthy union backers.
With a recent poll conducted by YouGov chopping the Labour lead to just five points ahead of the Tories, any appeasement to union demands could drag Labour from the election winning centre-ground and into an outdated left-wing territory unpopular with the mainstream electorate. Ed and his party faithful know this, even if the union Money-Men do not.
McCluskey’s ambitious plan includes the recruitment of 5000 new members by December; the key aim of their recruitment being to exert influence upon their local party branches to select candidates with an agenda conducive to the union’s own rhetoric.
In a statement harking back to their 1970’s socialist heyday of militant unionism, McCluskey added:
“We are trying to win Labour back to our core values: a belief in collectivism, a belief in fairness, justice, equality, decency and respect.”
What strikes me most here is the attempt to ‘win back Labour’. Forcing through this agenda would remove Labour from the left of centre and transplant the party back to the irrelevant Clause IV era; an area of the political spectrum that the party’s influential modernisers and majority of their support has largely consigned to the dustbin.
I think Len McCluskey has treated the lessons of history as an irrelevance. From 1979 – 1997 the Labour party were in political exile, forced to spectate as first Thatcher, and then John Major completely redefined the nature of British politics. The age of consensual social democracy drowned under the ocean of free market rhetoric and individual endeavour. Collectivism, in the eyes of a changing electorate eager to strive for the top rungs of this new society, was passed its sell-by-date.
It was early on during this new age that infighting in the Labour party almost finished it off for good. Acerbic feuding between the party’s left-wing, represented by Michael Foot and Tony Benn, and David Healey’s right wing left the Labour party with just 27.6% of the vote during the 1983 general election – their worst showing since 1918.
A shift to the centre following Neil Kinnock’s leadership appointment witnessed marked improvements in subsequent elections and culminated in Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide victory in 1997 where the historic Clause IV ode to a socialist soul was terminated in line with the mood of an increasingly ambitious, self-preserving electorate. We all know of the party’s electoral success in the 13 years that followed.
Despite the skewed ambitions of Red Len and the union bully-boys, Miliband and his party faithful are already actively resisting any mooted change of direction.
If Len McCluskey and his union acolytes want to see a Labour government in 2015, banging the drums of 1975 is not the way to go about it. A return to the left-wing politics of Old Labour will garner the same electoral failures common to the twenty-eight years spent in the wilderness.
As the Labour party conference gets underway this weekend expect Ed Miliband to further define his party’s direction, a path I can assure you is far far away from the Red Flag politics of McCluskey’s better days.
Despite this, Ed may have a fight on his hands, with Unite being his biggest donor to the tune of £6 million since his leadership victory; it will be interesting to see how he plays his next hand without biting the one that feeds him.