By Dale Street
When Jim Murphy announced last Saturday that he was standing down as Scottish Labour Party leader, he took it as an opportunity to lambast Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey for his supposedly “destructive behaviour” towards the Labour Party.
Murphy claimed that he had been “at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the Union, (who) blame myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election.”
“Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr. McCluskey’s support. I see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics. … We cannot have our leaders selected or deselected by the grudges and grievances of one prominent man.”
“The leader of the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t serve at the grace of Len McCluskey, and the next leader of the UK Labour Party should not be picked by Len McCluskey.”
Len McCluskey has twice been elected Unite’s General Secretary, in 2010 and again in 2013.
If McCluskey really is guilty of “destructive behaviour” and his politics the “kiss of death”, then the Unite members who have twice elected him their General Secretary must be either: really thick not to have seen through him; or willing accomplices of his destructive behaviour.
Either way, Murphy’s criticisms of McCluskey amount to a gross insult of the majority of Unite members who have backed McCluskey in two successive union elections.
And that, in itself, tells you a lot about Murphy’s own politics and view of the world: He’s right, and the rest of the world (including the Scottish Labour Party, its affiliated unions, and the Scottish electorate) is wrong.
Murphy’s claim that support from McCluskey amounts to a “kiss of death” is incoherent in another respect.
In mid-2013 Ed Miliband announced the Collins Review, involving a fundamental change in the relationship between affiliated trade unions and the Labour Party, one which will lead to unions having much less of a say in the Labour Party’s decision-making processes.
McCluskey backed the Collins Review from the outset. Although many Unite activists opposed it, and were correct to do so, McCluskey argued for support for the Collins Review in Unite and in the broader trade union movement.
But Murphy, and those who share his politics, did not denounce McCluskey’s support for the Collins Review as “the kiss of death” and more evidence of his “destructive behaviour”. On the contrary, they welcomed his support.
Murphy’s claim that who Unite decides to back in Labour Party elections is the product of “the grudges and grievances of one prominent man” is another claim that does not stand up to scrutiny.
When Unite decides who to back in Labour Party leadership contests, it does so on the basis of which candidate best represents the union’s policies, as summed up in the Unite Political Strategy and in resolutions adopted at the union’s biennial policy conferences.
When Unite backed Neil Findlay and Katy Clark in last year’s Scottish Labour Party (deputy) leadership contest, it did so because their election platform embodied Unite’s policies. Jim Murphy’s election platform certainly didn’t. Nor did Kezia Dugsdale’s.
This is about as far away from making decisions on the basis of “the grudges and grievances of one prominent man” as you can get.
Murphy was equally wrong in claiming that in the week between the general election and last weekend’s meeting of the Scottish Labour Party Executive Committee he had been “at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the Union.”
He had certainly been at the centre of a campaign calling on him to resign. But the driving force behind that campaign were ordinary members of the Scottish Labour Party who rightly Murphy’s position as untenable after the debacle of 7th May.
The campaigning was initiated, organised and conducted by ordinary Labour Party members – only a minority of whom were Unite members. And even those who were Unite members were acting at their own initiative, not under the instructions of “the London leadership of Unite the Union”.
Murphy was particularly angered by what he described as McCluskey having “blamed myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election.”
But McCluskey’s actual argument was straightforward.
The leadership and politics of Jim Murphy, following on from the Labour-Tory-Lib-Dem ‘Better Together’ alliance, had allowed the SNP to pick up the votes of many traditional Labour voters.
The growth in support for the SNP had then allowed the Tories in England to win votes through an appeal to English nationalism, by presenting themselves as the people who would stick up for the English against the SNP.
And that argument is backed up by facts.
Anyone who canvassed in Scotland during the election campaign will have experienced longstanding Labour voters saying that they were switching to the SNP because of – although certainly not solely because of – ‘Better Together’ and the politics embodied by Murphy.
That was the sentiment which the SNP opportunistically played to in their election material (which would have been tried and tested on multiple focus groups before being published and circulated):
“Labour used to stand up to the Tories. Not any more. Labour and the Tories campaigned together in the referendum. And they voted together at Westminster for deeper spending cuts. The only way to lock out the Tories and force Labour back to its roots is to vote SNP.”
The surge in SNP support was then exploited by the Tories in England. We know this for a fact because the Tories subsequently boasted of the success of that strategy to the pro-Tory press:
“Under the plan set out by Crosby the Conservatives would attempt to squeeze UKIP and Lib-Dem votes by playing on fears of the SNP while highlighting David Cameron’s leadership and fears of economic ‘chaos’ under Labour. All the messages had been extensively tested on focus groups in key marginals.”
Even if it could have been better phrased, McCluskey was right to make the connection between Murphy, the SNP surge at Labour’s expense in Scotland, and Labour’s eventual defeat at a UK level.
Murphy thinks that it is the “kiss of death” to be backed by McCluskey? But it was Murphy’s siezure of the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party last year which proved to be the “kiss of death” for its election prospects on 7th May – and possibly even longer.