The row last week between Labour leader Ed Miliband and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey raises issues far beyond the internal politics of the Labour Party. It matters to everyone who wants to beat the Tories.
In an interview McCluskey made strong criticisms of the Labour leader for endangering the party’s electoral prospects by supporting “austerity-lite”. McCluskey said that if Miliband was “seduced” by Blairites “then he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.”
He added that if Miliband “is daft enough to get sucked into the old Blairite ‘neoliberalism wasn’t too bad’...then not only will he fail but I fear for the future of the Labour Party.”.
The response was swift. A Miliband spokesperson was instructed to say that “Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party.
“It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work. It is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.”
What’s going on here?
The Labour leadership cabal probably believed it was helpful to attack a left wing union leader a few days before the English county council elections. Despite what he says, it’s Miliband who is replaying the error that Labour committed in the past—the idea that success comes from mimicking the Tories and attacking the left.
Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock thought bashing the left was the way to win votes. The result? Two shattering general election defeats in 1987 and 1992.
The general elections in Greece last year and Italy this year showed how Labour-type parties that accept the cuts agenda can lose even in a time of deep crisis.
Miliband’s outburst is also another example of his desperate desire to seize every opportunity to make clear he is not “Red Ed”. He may have thought that because he clashed with Tony Blair a fortnight ago, he now needed to redress the balance by hitting the left.
But what about McCluskey? He genuinely worries about Labour losing. His union aims to help “reclaim” the party and to influence its policies. But over benefits, the bedroom tax, Margaret Thatcher and much else Labour is stuck with a right wing agenda.
On 26 June when chancellor George Osborne makes his big spending statement is Labour going to propose a bold alternative? McCluskey can guess that answer.
And we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of the 36 percent vote for rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks in the Unite general secretary election. McCluskey knows that many of his members want a more aggressive assault on the bosses and the Labour leaders.
Socialists should absolutely defend McCluskey against Miliband. But McCluskey is the master of powerful words that often lead to nothing. So he shouts at Miliband but Unite remains Labour’s largest donor. It has shelled out £8.5 million since Miliband became leader.
There’s no sign of Unite slowing the flow of cash, or demanding that it should receive some results for its money.
McCluskey has more than once said that if Labour doesn’t deliver then it will be time to discuss a new party. Labour hasn’t, and isn’t, delivering. McCluskey could do an immense service by joining the discussions about a left alternative to Labour.
In the end the best way to ensure that Cameron and his crew are booted out is organise the biggest possible strikes and protests. This is the way to give confidence and undermine right wing ideas.
In the same interview where he attacked Miliband, McCluskey said, “I very much doubt the TUC will name a day [for a general strike].
“But some unions, including Unite, might go away and talk about whether there is anything else they might wish to do, over and above the collective decision of the TUC.”
It’s time to do that, not just talk about it.
These are the sort of issues that need to be discussed throughout the working class movement, and at the People’s Assembly on 22 June.
Those of us who want action not words, and don’t trust Miliband, should be there and be part of the debate.