The campaign for General Secretary of Unite really caught fire today – leading the BBC’s bulletins in the morning and gaining traction as the day went on: with Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne confronting each over attitudes to the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit.
And big loser from the day seems to be McCluskey – whose campaign appears to be a complete mess.
It went wrong from the start for the incumbent: he had given an interview to the Daily Mirror in which he speculated at some length about whether and when Labour’s “awful” poll ratings would lead to Jeremy Corbyn quitting.
Faced with an opponent whose main pitch is that he spends too much time trying to act like the puppet master of the Labour Party and devotes nowhere near enough effort to looking after Unite’s members’ concerns, it was as much reckless as stupid, and must have left his campaign staff in despair.
What is more, it was an entirely unforced error. The Mirror is instinctively sympathetic to McCluskey (even if hostile to Corbyn) and there was no stitch-up to be seen. McCluskey simply pointed the machine gun at his feet and pulled the trigger.
Gerard Coyne, though, had other fish to fry before he even got around to exploiting McCluskey’s gaffe. He used today to deliver a tough message on Brexit and immigration – demanding that Theresa May issue an unequivocal vow to “take back control” of Britain’s borders.
That might have been an opportunity for McCluskey to hit back and rally his activist base but given the mess he had got himself into before Christmas over immigration he seemed unable to do so. Then he had appeared to also endorse a tougher line on migration: no doubt because he knows that the polling shows this to be a big concern for working class voters, including Unite members. But the ferocious backlash he faced from his supporters on the left forced him to backtrack and claim – rather unconvincingly – he’d been misrepresented.
What McCluskey now stands for over Europe is as clear as mud. He said today that his demand was “access to the single market” – but nobody has ever suggested British firms would be banned from selling on the continent, so it’s a deliberately or otherwise meaningless phrase. But demanding “membership” of the single market means endorsing free movement and he cannot bring himself to do that either.
McCluskey seems to have trapped himself in a web of indecision.
Coyne’s biggest victory, though, was surely to get the contest up in lights and more or less on his terms. His big strategic aim must be to raise the turnout and while not quite any publicity is good publicity, a day like today will have left him feeling very pleased.
The only (faintly) shining light for McCluskey is the seeming weakness of the campaign of the left challenger, Ian Allinson. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election in September 2015 much of Britain’s far left has infiltrated the Labour Party and, at the same time, and for reasons not connected to Corbynism, the Socialist Workers Party has all but collapsed, leaving Allinson’s base, the non-Labour left, weaker than at any time in living memory. Perhaps McCluskey’s vacillations over Corbyn and migration will give him a way in to the campaign? If so he needs to get his act together, and soon.