Labour figures seek to turn back clock and adopt 1990s playbook
Blairite criticisms and Chuka Umunna attack have illustrated tensions in the party
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna and Peter Mandelson on The Andrew Marr Show. “The awful, shocking thing about this election is Labour could have won it,” Mandelson said. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images
Len McCluskey, the combative leader of Britain’s largest union, Unite, issued a message to voters on the eve of polling, telling them the Labour Party “is our party, we built it to serve us, the people”.
The changes Britain needs “are within our grasp”, he told them. The voters decided otherwise. Since then, McCluskey has been quiet about the flaws in Labour’s campaign that have left it with the worst crisis it has faced, perhaps, since the Conservatives’ savaging of Michael Foot in 1983.
The silence has been deliberate, too, since Unite has been vocal where it has chosen to be: demanding the immediate resignation in Scotland of the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, warning that Labour there faces “irrelevance and, ultimately, extinction”.
However, a string of Labour figures – who were never happy with the unions’ influence during the Ed Miliband era, emerged yesterday after Thursday’s election drubbing. None of them argued for the McCluskey agenda.
Instead, led by Peter Mandelson, they argued that the menu offered by Miliband, backed by McCluskey and most of the other trade union leaders, largely explained why Labour had done so badly.
“The awful, shocking thing about this election is Labour could have won it,” Mandelson told the Andrew Marr Show. “The reason we lost it and lost it so badly is in 2010 we discarded New Labour, rather than revitalising it and re-energising it and making it relevant for the new times.”
Traditional resultLast January, former British prime minister Tony Blair openly questioned Miliband’s chances of victory, saying he feared the 2015 election would be one where “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”.
Blair now feels vindicated, if saddened, warning that Labour’s route back to power lies in copying the Labour playbook from the 1990s – altered to cope with today’s demands: “The route to the summit lies through the centre ground.
“Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. Hard-working families don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want us to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve.
“They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it,” wrote Blair in The Observer, though he did praise Miliband for his campaign and for showing courage in the face of often savage attacks.
However, the speed of the Mandelson attack, Blair’s advice and Chuka Umunna’s criticisms of electoral strategy have not gone down well in all quarters of a parliamentary party that is still staunching its wounds.
Umunna’s refusal to say if he had disagreed openly with the strategy has been noted: “He supported Ed in the leadership race; he was his [parliamentary private secretary]. And he didn’t question it inside the shadow cabinet,” said one MP.
Illustrating the tensions bubbling underneath, the leader of the GMB union, Paul Kenny, dismissed Mandelson’s assessment and his advice, saying: “Frankly he needs to go back to his deck chair in the garden.
“It’s a quarter of a century since Peter played a very important role in the Labour Party’s history and regeneration. But that was a time when school kids didn’t have mobile phones and we only had three TV channels. The world has moved on.”
However, union leaders such as Kenny and McCluskey know that Labour’s next leader will be elected not in TV studios, but under rules brought in after a 2014 review ordered by Miliband that abolished the party’s electoral college system.
Then, party members, MPs and the trade unions and affiliated societies each had a third of the vote – Miliband did not get a majority of MPs, or members, but he won the unions’ vote by a significant margin because the union leaders decided that he should.
After being sent ballot papers by the unions, rank-and-file members opened them to find literature from Miliband’s campaign. Nothing was included from Miliband’s brother, David, or the other candidates, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham or Diane Abbott.
The college is now gone. Instead, each member has one vote.
The power of the union barons should be curbed – but perhaps it is not. On Friday, Labour HQ emphasised that 250,000 people will be able to vote this time.
However, it may not be as simple as that if the union leaders launch a campaign to get workers to affiliate individually to Labour. If they do then they can vote. And the union leaders control their own members’ lists – which they can refuse to share with Labour HQ.
Echoing the concerns of others, Mandelson demanded that HQ must run the voting lists this time: “We cannot open ourselves up to the sort of abuse and inappropriate influence that the trade unions weighed in with in our leadership election in 2010.
“That is the sort of abuse by trade union machines, not by individual trade unionists, but by trade union machines we must guard against this time,” said Mandelson, an architect along with Tony Blair of New Labour.