Today’s broadcast from Len McCluskey Land was always going to be fun. For those of us who only lived through the tail end of the 1980s, the Unite General Secretary’s speech was a useful glimpse of that decade and the one before. It was also peppered with some great characters: a chap who Len called Paul Dackery who, when not editing a national newspaper that made a rather embarrassing editorial judgement 80 years ago, apparently likes to go around licking people’s boots. McCluskey addressed Dacre and his colleagues at the Mail, saying ‘we know you like to kick the poor while licking the boots of the rich’. Apart from anything else, kicking and licking at the same time would make for quite impressive gymnastics on the part of this Mr Dackery, whose name is such poison to the Unite leader that he didn’t even want to pronounce it properly.
Offstage, a small violin wept as McCluskey turned on the ‘Tory media and New Labour spin doctors’, who apparently ‘will never ever be able to understand the solidarity of working people’. A funny thing to say in the week that polling found 61 per cent of Unite members don’t think McCluskey or Ed Miliband represent them or the things they care about, but never mind. McCluskey didn’t seem that bothered, defending his union so robustly that he even said ‘your union did nothing wrong in Falkirk’ as he insisted that it had stuck to the rules, even if the rules were a bit bad and might, he conceded, need changing. McCluskey has already criticised the report into the row, which he hasn’t seen, but which his political director was able to read and take notes on. Today he stuck the knife in a bit further, saying the report was ‘a shoddy force which every one of you here… would recognise as a disgrace’.
This was all a nice bit of drama, but not surprising. What will cause more meaningful drama in the months ahead is the direction in which Len is clearly taking his union. While he was very keen to say that Ed Miliband’s speech about reforming the Labour link with the trade unions was ‘an opportunity, not a threat’, he also made perfectly clear that it’s not just the link that must change: it’s the party too. He spoke of the need for Labour to present itself as a party attractive to Unite members in order to attract sufficient numbers of them to register as affiliate members.
The funny thing is, Len might find a Labour party that is really attractive to Unite members is not one that he personally finds attractive. Lord Ashcroft (and goodness knows what funny name the Unite boss would give this right-wing villain) found that 86 per cent of Unite members back the government’s £26,000 benefit cap. Awkwardly, quite a lot of them enjoy reading that nasty Mr Dackery’s paper, too: 20 per cent against 11 per cent who read the Mirror and 11 per cent who read the Guardian.
But back in Lenland, the Labour party will have to become more attractive at least to McCluskey himself. Because the clear line from this speech was that the union will happily submit to the ‘bold’ reforms proposed by Ed Miliband so long as it gets more of a say in policy-making. And the threat was there too: McCluskey said the union’s political fund could be put to a ‘variety’ of uses, ‘not just handing over to the Labour party as has generally happened’. Which shows just how bold Miliband is going to have to be, not just in reforming the specific union link, but in keeping control of his party’s policymaking process.