“I have no doubt if things start to move in different directions and ordinary working people start saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure what Labour stands for,’ then my activists will ask me, ‘Why are we giving so much money?’”
That was Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s warning shot to Sir Keir Starmer following the union’s decision to reduce its financial contributions to the Labour party by a reported 10%.
McCluskey was especially critical of the party leadership’s decision to apologise and pay damages to members of staff who had co-operated with a BBC Panorama investigation on anti-Semitism, but he made clear that his discontent with Sir Keir and his team runs much deeper than that particular grievance.
To the question, however, of whether Unite’s remonstrance is likely to cause any serious worry to the Labour leadership, the answer is almost certainly no. Sir Keir’s primary objective at the moment is to convince the electorate that Labour is under new management. That means distancing himself and his leadership from Corbynism and all its high priests, McCluskey included. Thus, he may well consider that Unite’s gesture of defiance plays right into his hands.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the leadership should set out to antagonise the unions. On the contrary, the relationship between the party and unions is, and has always been, integral to the advancement of the labour interest in this country and one that should be treated with care. Indeed, past Labour leaders have discovered that if they abuse that relationship, it can end badly for the party.
But, equally, union leaders cannot bury their heads in the sand — as I fear some are doing — about the scale of Labour’s defeat at the last general election and the reasons for it. That radical change is needed — in the language, ideology and priorities of the party — ought to be obvious. Hunkering down in their comfort zone and taking an attitude of “No compromise with the electorate!” would show that union leaders are less enthused by the prospect of winning power than they are playing to a sympathetic crowd.
Sir Keir, for all his faults, has made a steady start in refocusing the party’s attention on those things — family, community, nation — that matter to so many of those voters, rank-and-file trade unionists among them, who turned their backs on Labour last December. Union leaders should perhaps show some contrition over their own role in that electoral catastrophe and cut the new leader some slack instead of bemoaning every attempt to drag the party away from the abyss.