The game is up already, Len
Len McCluskey, the leader of the union Unite, is sounding more than a little desperate. His lengthy campaign to influence Labour’s policies in advance of next year’s scheduled general election has yielded nothing. His latest warning – to cut funding from the party altogether – will predictably have the same result.
The general secretary of Britain’s biggest union says that unless Ed Miliband – the leader of the party rebranded as One Nation Labour – adopts some progressive policies, he will lose the 2015 election. And if that happens, Unite would consider all options when it comes to funding political parties, with the implication that the union could switch to an alternative.
But as usual with McCluskey, his was a speech looking several ways at once, holding out hope where, in reality, none exists. McCluskey said that he hoped that a policy review would present a genuine alternative to the coalition. He added:
If it's a pale shade of austerity then I believe Labour will be defeated at the next election … I believe the British electorate are of a mind that unless there is a real alternative to say, 'We'd best stick with the devil we know.'
But One Nation Labour has already committed itself to the ConDem government’s spending plans, including a clampdown on public sector pay. A Miliband government would continue the assault on welfare benefits, especially targeting the young, and a whole range of other government policies. The market in public services would be retained. Miliband’s vision, if he has one, is for a regulated market economy, a “responsible capitalism”. This is no secret to anyone, including McCluskey.
Despite the vicious austerity programme introduced in 2010, the debt figures have hardly improved. In fact, the total national public debt has doubled in five years and the government’s spending deficit has hardly been reduced. So whoever wins the election will maintain austerity policies because that’s what the financial markets that fund the debt demand.
So when McCluskey says that “Ed's challenge is to simply demonstrate that he's on the side of ordinary people”, he must surely know that’s not going to happen. One Nation Labour is what it says on the packet – it’s for “people”: small businesses, the “squeezed middle”, those who want fewer immigrants; anti-welfare state types etc. This is reactionary and probably dangerous populism with a vengeance.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Miliband could actually win in 2015 with these kind of policies. With whole swathes of the electorate ready to stay at home on polling day, anything could happen. The competing populists of Ukip will take votes from all three main parties, making the outcome totally unpredictable.
Then what would McCluskey do? He would almost certainly say at least it’s better than having the Tories in and the task, brothers and sisters, is to put pressure on Labour to deliver for the workers! What a hopeless prospect.
The fact is that Miliband is not particularly interested in what McCluskey has to say. Only last month, he won overwhelming support for a plan to reduce the role of the trade unions in leadership elections and to abandon the historic relationship between affiliated union members and the party.
McCluskey dreams of a type of left reformism when the conditions for that simply don’t exist. Corporate-driven globalisation and the markets dictate to states and parliaments and not the other way around. The room for manoeuvre is non-existent. What the leader of Unite wants is commendable. Achieving it will, however, require an economic and political transformation that is well beyond the scope of the next general election.
2 April 2014