Nick Cohen

Labour must understand that Unite is its enemy

Labour must understand that Unite is its enemy
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Imagine you are a Labour MP or a trade union official surveying Britain this week. The following points will strike you:

  • Labour has just lost an election it could have won, in part because Unite helped impose a useless leader on it in Ed Miliband and an equally incoherent programme, which failed to convince millions of voters to rid themselves of a mediocre Tory government.
  • Poverty and inequality are everywhere growing in part because of the shocking failure of the trade union movement to come to the aid of the new working class. In the care, hospitality and private security industries and in the shopping, leisure and call centres that dot modern Britain trade unionism is barely a folk memory. Only 14 per cent of private sector workers are trade union members - and they are dying off. The government’s trade union bulletin reports that ‘over the eighteen years to 2013, the proportion of employees who belonged to a trade union has fallen in all age groups except those aged over 65’.
  • The Conservatives have thanked Ed Miliband for giving them the opportunity to govern alone for the first time since 1997 by doing what they do best: clamping down on workers’ rights and shrivelling the welfare state.
  • Yet despite all of the above, there is no self-criticism from Len McCluskey on how he got the Miliband years so badly wrong. Worse – far worse because it matters more for the future of Britain – there is no honest examination of the failure of unions to recruit among the new working poor either. McCluskey keeps saying he wants to stand up for ‘ordinary working people’ when he can’t persuade ‘ordinary working people’ to join his trade union. He keeps saying he wants to fight the hated Tories, while striking sectarian poses that will stop Labour building broad alliances with everyone from the church leaders to Liberal Democrats, who might take Cameron on.

    Instead of confronting his faults, he forces out the leader of the Scottish Labour party and talks as if he has veto rights over the leader of the national Labour party. All this at a time when Unite – or rather the dominant left faction within it – is heading for the exit door.

    Chesterton’s words that when a man stop believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing he believes in anything apply with a vengeance to the far left. After the death of socialism, they would go along with any movement however corrupt or reactionary if it was against the status quo.

    In Tower Hamlets in the East End of London Lutfur Rahman sent public money to his client Bangladeshi voters. (Imagine for a moment the cries of ‘apartheid,’ if a Conservative or Ukip council followed a ‘whites first’ public-spending policy.) He persuaded 101 Muslim clerics to instruct their credulous flocks to vote for him, and engaged in widespread electoral fraud. But even after an electoral court revealed Rahman’s corruption, McCluskey  still backed a crooked demagogue, who exploited racial and religious prejudice, in his fight against the official Labour candidate.

    Hardly anyone is mentioning Tower Hamlets in the debate about Unite, but that does not lessen its significance. The relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party is aptly described as a marriage: they fight all the time, and there’s no sex. But as with many successful marriages there is a strict prohibition of adultery, which in the case of the Labour-trade union cohabitation means you cannot back a rival party. Yet that is what Unite has done in London and is threatening to do in Scotland.

    Despite having used its influence to rig selections and having Unite sponsored Labour MPs in Westminster, I suspect what Unite – or rather the McCluskey faction within it – dreams of establishing a new pure party to the left of Labour. He has the men to do it. His chief of staff, Andrew Murray, is one of the most repugnant figures in left wing politics. People throw the word ‘Stalinist’ around and demean it by trivialising it. But in the case of Murray it is just. He is a member of the Communist Party of Britain, who has defended North Korea – ‘Our Party has already made its basic position of solidarity with Peoples Korea clear’ – and produced apologies for Stalinism.

    In no sense is he a friend or ally of the Labour Party. He is its enemy and his master is making it as clear as he can than he intends to become Labour’s enemy too. He has a political fund and Unite MPs, who may be more loyal to the union than the Labour party.

    In any divorce, it is essential to leave with your dignity intact. The wife, who allows her husband to parade his mistress in front of their friends, and abuse her in private and public, is in a more abject and humiliating state than a woman who tells him to get out as soon as she sees the love is gone. Whatever else she loses, she retains her self-respect.

    Labour, leaderless and stunned though it is, unloved and close to bankruptcy though it may be, has to make a decision. Is it going to allow Unite to flaunt its contempt for the party? Is it going to say, like a woman frightened of independence, that it cannot imagine surviving without McCluskey’s money, however badly he treats it? Will it bite its tongue, and hope that he will change? Or is it going to stand up for itself and show him the door?