Brian Wilson: Blast from the past hits Labour race

McCluskey's attack on Murphy on ideological grounds was not only divisive but baseless. Picture: Getty

McCluskey's attack on Murphy on ideological grounds was not only divisive but baseless. Picture: Getty

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BEING endorsed by a political dinosaur like Len McCluskey is something Jim Murphy can do without, writes Brian Wilson

I don’t imagine Jim Murphy is losing too much sleep over being denounced in such thoroughly nasty terms by Len McCluskey, general secretary of the ironically named Unite. In fact, he should wear it as a badge of honour.

Once upon a time, we had trade union leaders who commanded respect in Scotland – Hugh Wyper, Mick McGahey, Alex Donnett and the rest. It is impossible to imagine any of them intervening in the terms Mr McCluskey has chosen. Two of these I mention weren’t even in the Labour Party, but they were well able to combine principle with pragmatism, underpinned by loyalty to both class and movement.

The irony of it is that, in those days, no London-based general secretary would have dreamt of treading on Scottish territory in this way. The neanderthal wing of trade unionism apparently hasn’t heard of devolution. Whatever ancient score Mr McCluskey has to settle with Jim Murphy might have been left to another arena, if not only out of respect for his own Scottish officials.

As he loses no opportunity to confirm, Len McCluskey is a depressing symbol of the trade union movement’s decline in calibre of leadership as well as strength and political influence. The noble cause of trade unionism is ill-served by bombast and the sooner the Labour Party ceases to be in any way hostage to his general flakiness, the better.

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In recent months, he has threatened to start a party of his own if Labour loses the general election; played footsie with the Nationalists during the referendum campaign and called for the removal of people he doesn’t like – including Murphy – from the shadow cabinet, on pain of funding being removed. With friends like that…

One might have thought that the seedy Falkirk débâcle in which he played a starring role might have discouraged Mr McCluskey from meddling again for a while in Scottish politics. But this is a baron who can never resist the temptation to show off his power, whether real or imagined, if he thinks there is damage to be done and headlines to be gained.

Without the irritation of consulting the membership, Mr McCluskey has thrown the might of his baronetcy behind Neil Findlay for the post of Scottish Labour leader. I would like to think that the supposed beneficiary of this patronage is acutely aware of the dangers it carries. He does not have to look far for the evidence.

Neil Findlay strikes me as a thoroughly decent and able man with a real contribution to make to Labour’s future progress. The last thing he needs is to be anointed as the standard-bearer of political sectarianism by Len McCluskey.

And equally, the last thing Labour needs is to have this otherwise civilised contest turned into some great ideological battle in which one candidate is singled out for disparagement on grounds that do not hold the slightest basis in reality. When this is over, all these people must work together in common cause, which I am sure they have every intention of doing, regardless of external interventions.

There is the potential for Scottish Labour to emerge from this contest with a very strong leadership team – and by that I do not just mean the leader and deputy. This is the opportunity to promote a wide range of talented people of whom far too little has been heard.

Kezia Dugdale is a case in point. It is only in recent months that she has emerged as a national figure and a very pleasant, persuasive advocate of Labour’s case. There are others who fall into the same category, both at Holyrood and Westminster, and the objective should be to form them into a team with strength in all departments.

In practical terms, there is very little room for ideological difference between the candidates. Scottish Labour’s problem has not been a shortage of ideology, but of ideas. There simply needs to be a coherent, radical narrative about how services would be run better and money distributed more fairly than by the Nationalists.

When you look at the targets – education, NHS, justice, transport – that shouldn’t be too hard. But the priority is to (a) establish coherent messages and (b) communicate them effectively. Arguing over whether they are sufficiently “left” would be a waste of time since there is not the slightest evidence that “not being left enough” is what lost Labour its role at Holyrood.

Indeed, Labour created an electoral system intended to deliver coalition at Holyrood, making the McCluskey agenda even more irrelevant. Is reversing the damage done to further education in Scotland a “left” or “right” cause? Or restoring bursaries to low income students? Or spending the money intended for the NHS on the NHS rather than paying for the Nationalists’ political objectives? Who knows, who cares?

Let me make another heretical suggestion. Localism is a more urgent priority for Labour’s new leadership and policy-makers than how many angels dance on the head of an ideological pin. Get out and listen to people, identify local priorities, and seek to address them.

Holyrood seems to have induced the assumption that “one size fits all” for Scotland. A party which responds to local needs rather than hands down national policies will prosper.

Then there is organisation. Whoever becomes leader will find a party structure in need of urgent repair. It will be a thoroughly good thing if this is not seen as synonymous with what happens at Holyrood. Far too much of Labour’s activity now revolves around that institution. That is not where elections are won and lost. It’s at constituency level that the new leadership should concentrate its efforts.

However perversely, I am quite optimistic about Scottish Labour’s prospects. This is partly because I believe an impressive leadership team will emerge and that they will enlist a strong back-up squad to support them. But basically, it is because what Labour offers is what most Scottish voters actually want – a competent, left-of-centre government within the United Kingdom.

It’s entirely up to Labour itself to make that offer attractive enough for people to vote for it. I doubt if that is an objective to which Len McCluskey is likely to add much value.

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