The leader of Britain’s largest trade union has warned that its link with Labour could be put at risk if the party’s next leader fails to act as the “the voice of organised labour”.
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, suggested his union would rethink its relationship with Labour if the party elected the wrong leader to succeed Ed Miliband.
“It is the challenge of the Labour party to demonstrate that they are the voice of ordinary working people, that they are the voice of organised labour,” McCluskey told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live as he insisted he was not endorsing any candidate.
McCluskey, who was condemned by the outgoing leader of the Scottish Labour party, Jim Murphy, for acting as a destructive force, added: “It’s essential that the correct leader emerges, and that there’s a genuine debate about the direction that we are going in, a rethink. Let’s have the debate.”
The intervention by McCluskey came as Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary who is emerging as frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, moved to distance himself from the Unite leader and from Peter Mandelson. Burnham, who has been praised by McCluskey, said that the Unite general secretary was wrong to call for a move to the left while Mandelson was wrong to call for a return to New Labour.
“Both approaches are wrong,” Burnham told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1. “We have got to bring people back together. I am attracting support from all parts of the party.”
As McCluskey said that Unite would hold hustings with the leadership candidates, the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman, will on Monday move to clip the unions’ wings. Harman will say there will be no repeat of the 2010 election, when Ed Miliband won on the back of union votes after the largest trade unions placed his picture on the outside of envelopes carrying ballot papers.
The leadership election this year will be held under the format of one member, one vote introduced by Miliband. Candidates who secure the support of 15% of Labour MPs will be elected by a ballot in which each party member will have one vote. Union members who opt in to pay the political levy, and who have been verified, will also have a vote.
Harman, who will call for non-party members to be invited to public hustings in parts of the country where Labour failed to win, will say: “We will have strict rules to ensure there is a level playing field for each one of the candidates. Last time, the unions communicated directly with many of their members, sending them ballot papers with accompanying material only mentioning one candidate. There will be none of that this time. The Electoral Reform Society will send out individual ballot papers to each member of the electorate.
“The winner of this election is not going to be the choice of the unions or any single section or faction of the Labour party. He or she is going to be choice of the Labour party.”
The acting Labour leader will deliver her message after Jim Murphy announced on Saturday that he would resign as leader of the Scottish Labour party after surviving a move against him supported by the Unite union. Murphy accused McCluskey of destructive behaviour, prompting the Unite leader to say on Sunday said that he was being portrayed as a “bogeyman”.
The appearance of McCluskey put pressure on Burnham, who has been praised by the Unite leader in the past. The shadow health secretary, who has been criticised for being the candidate of the main trade unions who would fail to modernise the party, said he had spoken to McCluskey since the election. But Burnham said he had also spoken to other key figures across the party as he moved to demonstrate the breadth of his appeal by announcing that the shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, was supporting his campaign.
Reeves, who is one of the rising stars of the party’s 2010 intake, joins Michael Dugher, the shadow transport secretary, who is chairing Burnham’s campaign. The shadow lord chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who once shared a flat with Tony Blair, is also supporting Burnham.
Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Burnham said: “I am the change candidate, because we have got to reach out to those voters who had doubts about us on immigration and on economic competence. If we are going to rebuild that trust we need to have an honest assessment of the record of the last Labour government on the economy.”
Burnham also emerged as the favourite in a poll of 62 Labour candidates who failed to win their seats in the general election. In the poll, carried out by Westminster Public Affairs, Burnham won the support of 27.4% of the candidates. Liz Kendall, the shadow social care minister, was in second place on 17.7%. Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary who has since withdrawn from the race, was in third place with the support of 12.9% of those surveyed.
Jon Cruddas, Labour’s former policy coordinator, called on the next leader to “go to the dark places” and fundamentally review the purpose of the party. Cruddas told The World This Weekend on BBC Radio 4: “The person who should be leader is the person who runs towards the defeat, owns it and shows real leadership in not swerving around what happened 10 days ago, who is prepared to go to the dark places and fundamentally rethink what the Labour is for, who it represents, what it’s all about.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010