Hope McCluskey is wrong, but what if he’s right?

By David Osland

Len McCluskey has seen Labour’s future, and it doesn’t work. The outgoing Unite leader’s forthcoming biography – at least according to those who have their mitts on review copies – predicts imminent demise if the party maintains its current trajectory.

Media attention has focused on one reported quote in particular, openly critical of the current leader of the opposition.

“If a general election was called early, which seemed possible, Starmer would have little time to rectify his mistakes,” the Unite general secretary avers.

“He still had the opportunity to change course, unite his party around a radical platform and make the promised ‘moral case for socialism’.

“But he needed to realise that if the ship he was captaining listed too far to the right, it would go under.”

Starmer has responded by making clear that he doesn’t buy the argument. Rather than show his reasoning, he asserts flatly that it’s wrong.

And who can say? It remains possible that popular approbation for Sir Keir’s policies will sweep everything aside at the next general election, as Britain succumbs to a mass outburst of uncontrollable Starmermania.

But eagle-eyed readers will observe that I didn’t qualify the adjective ‘possible’ with the adverb ‘entirely’.

McCluskey is a substantial figure who has been central to Labour politics over the last period. This is the general secretary of one of Britain’s largest trade unions talking, not the leader of some Trot sect postulating the impending triumph of his iteration of the Fourth International.

His is an opinion that needs to be taken seriously, and the risk of Labour’s collapse is not nugatory. Everything hinges on how one defines ‘go under’.

The rocks that could hole the good ship Labour below the waterline are clearly visible to the passengers currently on deck.

Numerous influential malcontents on the Labour right are perfectly capable of regicide against a hapless king.

Some of them have long seen the very idea of an independent trade union-based party as an unfortunate Edwardian aberration, a wrong turn away from Gladstonian liberalism.

The idea of healing this progressive divide has been knocking around for some decades, initially developed by former Labour MP and SDP founder member David Marquand.

It provided the theoretical basis for the rapprochement that would have seen the Lib Dems invited into government in 1997, had Blair not been gifted a landslide victory.

The underlying logic of at least some of those calling for a progressive alliance at the next general election is the subsumption of the extant Labour Party into a British riff on the Democrats on the other side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, one event to watch for this autumn is the latest attempt to regroup the flotsam and jetsam, a project now openly under discussion by Labour leftist stalwarts who have found their membership terminated with extreme prejudice.

Anyone who has observed the fortunes of Militant Labour, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Respect Renewal, Left Alternative, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, No2EU, Left Unity and the electoral forays of the Communist Party of Britain since the 1990s can be forgiven a certain chariness.

Nevertheless, numbers could be bigger this time round, thanks to the tens of thousands of Corbynistas who have either walked out or been expelled.

By my count, there are three or four former Labour MPs who could sign up, although the idea that any sitting parliamentarians will defect is utterly chimerical.

Such an outfit would have zero chance of winning any Westminster seats itself. But even shaving away a few percentage points from Labour support where it does conjure up the deposit could damage Starmer.

In particular, its inevitable forthright stance on Israel/Palestine will appeal to many Muslims, a crucial demographic in dozens of constituencies, as demonstrated in Batley and Spen.

Almost as big a danger as Labour ‘going under’ is the risk that it will remain afloat, with crew morale low and its hull weakened by a financial crisis resulting from the Corbynista exodus, leaving it unable even to function as a serious national organisation.

Starmer is clearly struggling in the bid to win back the Red Wall, while the defenestration of Richard Leonard in favour of Anas Sarwar north of the border has so far generated little concrete expectation that Labour can recapture what looks like permanently lost ground in Scotland.

Nor is there any indication that the appeal of Boris Johnson’s gamble on a hardline Brexit is starting to wane, with Tory backing continuing to top 40%.

Unless current polling can somehow be built upon – answers on a postcard to Victoria Street, please – the worst result since 1935 could ultimately be topped by the worst result since 1931.

All of this matters, not just to socialists who want to see a transformative leftwing government, but anyone who wants to see a non-Tory administration formed in Britain at any point in the 2020s.

In other words, hope McCluskey is wrong. But be prepared for him to be right.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Len McCluskey. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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