Could the unions turn on Corbyn?
Being a Labour member is currently miserable and exhausting. And it really is difficult to see how things are ever going to get any better.
The membership granted Jeremy Corbyn a huge win back in September, and if anything, you would imagine the majority would be greater if the election were to be held today. It is believed that 30,000 long-term, “real members” and Dan Hodges have left the party. I certainly understand the impulse, and the reasons, but this only serves to boost Corbyn’s grip on the leadership; the members are his shield against an interfering parliamentary party who will insist on doing what they believe to be right, rather than just supinely following orders. How unprincipled!
This explains the parliamentary party’s reluctance to act. They know that if they forced a new leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn would find his way back on to the ballot paper, and likely win by a greater margin. It would be a costly way for a cash-strapped party to strengthen Corbyn’s hand. Meanwhile, the polling just gets worse and worse.
Are we stuck like this? Forced into waiting for something to turn up, like Micawber, as Joe Haines puts it? John Denham writes a well-argued, thoughtful piece about how the gap could be bridged. It would be lovely, to all come together, find some common ground, and get at those Tories. But it won’t happen. Corbyn and his team keep picking particularly divisive subjects to focus on; Trident is set to be a key battleground this year, when it really doesn’t need to be. Ken Livingstone this week suggested we could pull out of NATO. If they want to unite, this isn’t how to do it.
Of course on the other side, many Labour members, myself included, can’t accept a leader who sacks members of his shadow cabinet for arguing that terrorists are responsible for terrorism, or a shadow chancellor who says that resigning ministers don’t have Labour’s best interests at heart. And that’s far from the worst of it.
But there is, I believe, one ray of hope, in the most unlikely of places. It comes in the form of the trade unions.
I know, this sounds like madness. The unions were delighted when Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership. And even as recently as November, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Britain’s biggest trade union, warned that the entire union movement would defend Corbyn against any parliamentary coup.
And yet, and yet. There are fault lines here. Top of the list, Trident. Within Corbyn’s first month, trade unions organised at the Labour conference to block any debate on Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with McCluskey stating that Unite members would not vote to disarm. Admittedly, the unions aren’t unanimous on the issue, with Unison supportive of disarmament, Unite and the GMB opposed. But if Corbyn were smart, he’d stop picking at this particular scab. There will be a lot of political cost for no gain at all; Trident is going to be renewed by a majority Conservative government in any case.
It’s not just Trident. Unions are also opposed to Corbyn and McDonnell on the third runway at Heathrow. John McDonnell, whose constituency would be affected, has campaigned vigorously against, whereas Unite and the TUC are strongly in favour of the move, to boost the economy.
But surely these are just minor problems? Surely the unions disagreed with Tony Blair far, far more than this? Well, yes, undoubtedly they did. But here’s the nub. All of those arguments happened under a Labour government; holding power tends to buy you some leeway, and Blair was in a far stronger position internally than Corbyn is now.
Scratch away a little bit and you begin to see the unions, while supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, also want a competent, capable, electable Labour party.
Flip back to Len McCluskey, saying that maybe Jeremy Corbyn should think before opening his mouth, following the latter’s shoot-to-kill remarks. In the same interview, McCluskey calls for a credible economic alternative from Corbyn. Nope, I’ve not seen one yet either.
What about Frances O’Grady at the TUC, stating that Labour must be “more than a fan club”, must appeal to the country at large, must reach well beyond its own ranks? Anyone think Corbyn’s Labour is currently doing that?
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, has also joined in, telling Labour to “get its act together” back in November. It would take a brave Corbynite to claim that’s happened in the last six weeks. Notably, he suggests that “divisive rows over Trident or shoot-to-kill are distractions no-one needs”.
The unions support a lot of what Jeremy Corbyn stands for, but they will not back him unquestioningly. They may find their union members asking why they should support a Labour party committed to abolishing jobs in the aviation and defence industries, or how they are supposed to back a leader who is weak on national security. In turn, union leaders may start asking those same questions of Corbyn.
Most of all, union leaders want to win. They want a Labour government to represent their members; it’s why they fund the party. The unions have gone notably quiet over the last few weeks. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Perhaps not. But if Labour do poorly in May’s elections — 35% is the minimum required, according to some — we may well see them begin to apply some pressure. And, unlike the parliamentary party, the unions are capable of applying some significant pressure, both financially and via the votes of their members.
We may even see something that once would have seemed incredible. Union leaders and Blairite MPs coming together, in order to save the Labour party.