By Gareth Morgan, Director
Here is a question; Would Jeremy Corbyn be leader of the Labour party today if he hadn’t had the unequivocal backing of the general secretary of the UK’s biggest trade union? Probably not. Len McCluskey has been absolutely central to buttressing the Labour leader and enabling him to get through the challenges to his authority. As such he will be remembered as a key part of the Corbyn project that has altered the face of UK politics.
We should be under no illusions that Corbyn’s control of his party is now solid and not just because of Len’s backing. Many in the Parliamentary Labour Party still aren’t happy but they are cowed by the general election result and the continued polling in the low 40% range. Even Corbyn’s staunchest critics will concede that he has won the right to take his strategy to its conclusion in 2020 (if not earlier).
As a reminder of Unite’s importance though; Unite are still the biggest funder of the party (in the first week of the election campaign they gave £2.4m of the total £2.7m received by Labour), they have upwards of one million members they can encourage to register as supporters in a leadership election (and indeed activate in Parliamentary candidate selections), Unite has three seats on the NEC and of course Len’s chief of staff, Andrew Murray, was seconded to Jeremy’s team for the general election campaign. That is quite a shadow to cast.
That is why, before the election was called, it was felt that the key vote in 2017 was going to be the contest over Unite’s general secretary role. Len was the rock behind Jeremy and little was going to happen to the Labour leader while that situation was maintained.
Amongst the contenders was Gerard Coyne, a regional secretary from the West Midlands who drew support from the right of the union. What ensued was a proper, gloves-off street fight of a campaign where Coyne’s team hammered away on deeply personal issues that were hard to come back from once thrown into the open. The result was much closer than expected with Coyne only just shy and the candidate to the left of Len (honestly, there was one) also polling well. Len celebrated his renewed mandate with a swift sacking of Coyne for alleged misuse of data and that was that. Game over.
But it wasn’t. Coyne made a number of complaints in June 2017 to an independent certification officer who has ever since been looking into the accusations. There have been rumours for some time that the results of this investigation have not been good for Len and that his team have been using every trick they have to get the report delayed or certain accusations kicked out. However, just before Christmas there were suggestions that these efforts had been unsuccessful and we were moving to a hearing where if the certification officer found against Len he could order a re-run.
Coyne’s team were buoyed by this because they expected Len would not, or could not, run again, that they would be able to improve on last time’s effort because they weren’t starting from scratch now and the expectation that the vote on the Left of Unite would be fractured amongst a number of candidates.
This week there was a suggestion that things might move faster with a former left-wing candidate for Unite’s general secretary role tweeting that January 9th could see Len announce that he was standing down (and in Westminster rumours circling that Len could be elevated to the Lords by Corbyn’s team!).
Life comes at you fast. So what does that mean for Labour?
1) Tom Watson’s role is strengthened – he and his old pal Len have fallen out spectacularly and he is outside the inner circle of Corbyn. But Coyne is from his patch and was always seen as his candidate. Tom Watson with Unite at his back is a different animal to Tom Watson on the run from Len.
2) The threat to the PLP recedes – Labour MPs are behaving better because they have to. There have been mooted re-selections for some time and many MPs are worried that they’ll be triggered (the process for opening up selection). There have been rumours for some time that Unite is affiliating with individual CLPs in the regions of the country in order to be able to trigger MPs whose behaviour Len and team do not approve of (prompting the same process from GMB as a counterbalance to Unite’s influence). Take the Unite threat away and the restraining leash may fray just a little more.
3) The NEC dynamic changes – Unite has three seats on the NEC but its influence is felt more broadly – both through alignment with the more Corbynista unions (CWU etc..) but also alleged tinkering by Len where he would contact the NEC representatives of other unions directly (much to the chagrin of other union leaders). The balance of the NEC is fairly tight and a change in Unite’s leadership could eventually (its delegates aren’t the gift of the GS) tilt it away from the Left.
4) The ‘big’ unions are more aligned – In crude terms Unite, CWU and TSSA have backed Corbyn while GMB, USDAW and Unison have been more reticent. If the Unite, GMB and Unison leaderships are more aligned in their positions on policy or party democratic reform then that is a significant shift.
5) The Money – Ultimately money talks, Unite are the biggest funder of the Labour party and they have to be listened to for that reason. If there is a new man in charge of those purse strings then that matters.
6) Candidate selections – the next three months are key to putting in place Labour candidates for the top 75 target seats at the next general election. Unite’s endorsement matters for these and ensuring a swathe of left-wingers get these spots has been a strategic aim of the Left in changing the relationship between the PLP and the Leader. If Coyne is in charge then Unite may start endorsing slightly different candidates.
There are many twists and turns ahead. Corbyn has surpassed expectations in the past year and has in the eyes of many earned the right to lead Labour into the next general election. But the leadership is still a tightrope and the relationship with the PLP is an uneasy truce. If, and it is still an if, Len does get pushed out (or jumps before he is) then that tightrope doesn’t have a safety net beneath it anymore.