What are we to make of the spat between Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s biggest union and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party who in large measures owes his very position to the man he has publicly castigated?
McCluskey wants Miliband to rid his leadership of three Blairite members of the shadow cabinet or risk losing the next election. For his part, Miliband has attacked McCluskey for a “reprehensible” attempt to divide the Labour and of being “disloyal” to the party.
Wary of attempts by the right-wing press to portray him as a creature of the unions, a spokesman for Miliband added for good measure that McCluskey "does not speak for the Labour Party".
The charge sheet against McCluskey was further extended to accuse him of advocating “the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s”. Considering that McCluskey’s Unite provides 20% of the funding for Labour, it’s a high-risk quarrel.
Miliband is surely aware, however, that McCluskey is unlikely to turn his words into actions anytime soon. And here’s where McCluskey is somewhat disingenuous. In his interview with the New Statesman, McCluskey says his recent re-election as general secretary means the union will be checking up on Labour up to after the next election.
But when McCluskey suggests Miliband must spending many an hour worrying about how to neuter the influence of the Blairites, he has got it 100% wrong. Miliband, it is true, has tried to distance himself a little from the Blair-Brown governments, of which he was a member. But in essence, Miliband is no different in outlook.
Under his leadership, Labour has adopted policies and attitudes which Unite is actually opposed to. These include the acceptance of the ConDems’ public sector pay freeze, cuts in services and jobs at local government level, opposition to strike action in defence of pensions, etc. etc. etc.
As Miliband’s statement says, he believes McCluskey is advocating the politics of the 1980s, which Labour has rejected. Instead, Miliband has embraced “responsible capitalism” as a goal, pre-distribution rather than redistribution (I’ll leave you to ponder that one), workfare and reducing the national debt. He is also vying with Ukip and the Tories to adopt anti-immigration postures and has no plans to end the role of the markets in public services and the NHS.
This is Blairism Mark II, the hunt for the so-called “centre ground” in British politics, which is now overcrowded with politicians from the all the mainstream parties putting forward more or less the same policies.
McCluskey must know this. Indeed, he refers to the dangers of Miliband going into an election with “austerity-lite” policies. But by choosing to attack Blairites like Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Liam Byrne, he evades the reality of Miliband’s own leadership and what Labour has irrefutably become.
McCluskey claims that Labour is “at a crossroads” when in fact it passed them a long time ago. Neoliberalism isn’t, whatever McCluskey might suggest, a product of Blairism. Rather, it was the other way round. Blair, like Thatcher before him, responded to the changes in the capitalist system.
Globalisation demanded deregulation and open markets. States and governments fell into line because, ultimately, they serve the same master – the bottom line. The era that went before – top-down state ownership, heavy bureaucracy, capital controls, regulation etc – was swept aside and cannot be reproduced.
Miliband is no fool and he knows this. Having seen what’s happened to Francois Hollande across the Channel, where attempts to rein in capitalism have floundered, Miliband is not about to go down the same path. So when McCluskey says that if Labour fails to emerge as “the authentic voice of ordinary working people” his union would reconsider its position, he is a long way behind what’s already happened.
Unite stumped up the cash to get Miliband elected ahead of his brother after the last election. The political return on capital invested is so negligible that his membership must wonder why they continue to fund Labour. McCluskey is undoubtedly feeling the pressure from his rank-and-file. That’s why he’s spoken out. Now he owes them a debate about where their money goes right now, not at some distant point in the future.