The general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, believes that Ed Miliband could work with Nicola Sturgeon after the election, while insisting it would be wrong for him to attack the SNP when the party currently has the support of half his membership in Scotland.
Talking exclusively to the Guardian on a campaigning visit to Glasgow, McCluskey said: “I’m expecting Ed Miliband to be prime minister and in those circumstances I would expect him to work well with any progressive party who seeks to support the vision that he has of changing Britain for the better.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has made a number of offers to work with Miliband should their parties together command a majority after 7 May.
Pressed as to whether he believed the SNP could be such a progressive ally, or if the party’s stance was purely rhetorical, McCluskey responded: “That’s an accusation that is levelled. My view is that they have undoubtedly changed the contours of the political scene and we have to respond to that, in particular the trade unions.”
“It’s not about the jury being out [on the progressive credentials of the SNP], it’s about us understanding what’s being said, watching the leadership debates – Ed Miliband has been impressive, Nicola Sturgeon has been impressive, others less so – but you’ve got to wait and see what the dice say and then critically look at how you can best defend working people.”
In his first significant intervention in Scottish politics since he described the election of Jim Murphy to the leadership of Scottish Labour as a “sentence of political death” for the party, he revealed that his membership is “pretty well split” between support for Labour and the SNP. “It would be wrong of me to launch an attack against the SNP who have a manifesto that is anti-austerity, which is Unite’s policy, and many of the issues that they talk about are in line with the policies of my membership.”
Describing the SNP as “an enigma”, he acknowledged the criticism levelled at the party that, while its language is progressive, in practice in local authorities and at Holyrood they have not acted as such. But he insisted: “I haven’t come to Scotland to attack the SNP.
“My task is to indicate to my members that the level of radicalisation that has taken place in Labour over the past few years is sufficient for them to start re-occupying that ground that people feel they have lost. It’s a trust issue. Whether we like it or not the SNP appear to have gained some trust of the Scottish working class.”
McCluskey, who has been one of Miliband’s most consistent supporters, said that he had been warning Labour’s Westminster leadership about the party’s increasingly parlous state in Scotland “for it seems like an interminable number of years”. Last autumn, after September’s referendum on Scottish independence, Johann Lamont resigned as Scottish Labour leader, claiming that Westminster colleagues treated the party like “a branch office”.
McCluskey said: “Whenever working-class people get disillusioned with Labour, historically, they tend to absent themselves from politics, and they do that because they don’t see an alternative. But what has happened over a number of years in Scotland is that the Scottish Nationalists have started to pose themselves as a social-democratic alternative to Labour, and that’s very much come to fruition.”
Blaming a general disillusionment with the policies and legacy of New Labour, he added: “That was the task: Ed Miliband had to repair the trust that had been lost. It’s not an easy task and it’s not easy being leader of the Labour party. But in Scotland, at the same time, what we saw emerging was a credible alternative.”
Accepting that neither the Conservatives nor Labour were likely to win a majority, he said the battle in Scotland was to win back those lost thousands of voters. Despite his earlier criticisms of the new Scottish Labour leader, and the fact he did not campaign with Murphy during his visit, he insisted: “We’re a democratic party and of course we’re behind him and supporting his efforts to change. There are issues that are being talked about in Scotland now that I’ve wanted to hear for a while.” He added: “Once this is all over, depending on what’s happened, it may be that we have to re-examine where we are.”
Asked if he had any fellow feeling for Nicola Sturgeon, recently attacked by the Daily Mail as “the most dangerous woman in Britain” – the sort of headline usually reserved for McCluskey himself – he laughed: “It’s extraordinary what they come up with. These are the mouthpieces of the the ruling elite, so in some ways its a demonstration of them panicking.” Admitting that “they always need a trade union bogey man”, he said of the attacks on Sturgeon: “I’m sure she’ll wear it as a badge of honour.”
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