LEN McCluskey has urged Labour to apologise for “betraying” Scotland and warned that the SNP would make further gains in the May election.
The General Secretary of the Unite trade union accused New Labour of “alienating” the Scottish working class, in a dramatic intervention ahead of the Scottish election.
As the leader of Labour’s biggest union paymaster, McCluskey’s devastating critique of Scottish Labour’s performance is a significant blow to the party.
On the eve of his speech to the first Unite Scotland Policy Conference, McCluskey said the union would continue to support Labour and seek to influence the party to win back the support that had been lost to the SNP.
McCluskey revealed his members had deserted Labour, switching to SNP in “extraordinary” numbers.
The scale of the challenge facing Scottish Labour was illustrated by internal polling which showed almost two- thirds of Unite Scotland members now supported the Nationalists.
According to McCluskey, Unite Scotland had traditionally seen 80 per cent of members support Labour.
At last year’s general election, polls suggested that between 63 per cent and 65 per cent of them had voted SNP.
Speaking to journalists at the conference in Clydebank, McCluskey said: “The ideology of New Labour effectively alienated large swathes of the Scottish working class, which manifested itself quite dramatically last May. Kezia has to effectively say Labour is under new management where we apologise for betraying you and we will start from scratch to try and build that trust up.”
He indicated that Dugdale should pursue a left wing agenda to win back support as he conceded that the SNP was likely to win even more Holyrood seats in May.
“The truth is, from all the opinion polls it looks as if the SNP are going to make further gains in May,” McCluskey said.
“The neo-Liberal agenda that was pursued to its extreme by the last Labour government and the Labour leaderships that followed made it appear in Scotland that Labour wasn’t on the side of ordinary people. In fact, the SNP stole most of the radical clothes that historically belonged and should have belonged to Labour.
“Now the truth of the matter is in Scotland the SNP are seen by lots of people as a more social democratic party than Labour. So the task for Kezia and all of us is to try to win that trust back. She will do that by exposing some of the weaknesses of the SNP and holding them to account. At the same time putting forward policies that make the Scottish people believe that Labour has come home to us. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Speaking just before UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed the conference, McCluskey said Dugdale was facing a challenge but she had to be given time to turn the party round.
He also suggested it was “nonsense” to suggest that the May election should be treated as a referendum on Dugdale and Corbyn’s leadership.
In a speech today, McCluskey will underline that Unite is a “Labour union”.
He said: “It is the Labour Party that we support and we are affiliated to that party and we will continue to try and influence the party so it puts forward ideas, thoughts and visions that win Scottish Unite members, the Scottish working class and the Scottish people back to it.”
McCluskey also dealt a blow to Corbyn’s attempts to change Labour policy on Trident.
Corbyn has launched a defence policy review under Emily Thornberry in an attempt to reverse Labour’s pro-nuclear stance.
As Unite prepares to contribute to the review, McCluskey said the union’s priority would be to protect defence jobs that depend on the nuclear deterrent.
McCluskey said: “Irrespective of who’s leader of the Labour Party and who’s Prime Minister of our nation, jobs and communities will be our absolute priority for our union.
“We have to defend jobs. That’s the key thing – people’s jobs, their livelihoods, their families, their communities. I could take you to Barrow [in- Furness, where submarines are built] and the impact of not renewing Trident would devastate a whole area. You can’t do that if you are a responsible government or responsible trade union.”
Corbyn did not mention Trident in his speech, which he delivered just 20 miles down the Clyde from the Faslane naval base. But he said he wanted a foreign policy based on human rights.
The UK Labour leader concentrated on attacking the Conservatives’ Trade Union Bill and called on the SNP to help Labour derail the legislation.
“In Kezia Dugdale, we have a fantastic young leader in Scotland who is rebuilding our party. We are fighting the Tories’ attacks on social security we stopped their cuts to tax credits.
“We are resisting cuts to Scottish council budgets that pay for schools and social care and Labour councils across Scotland have pledged that they will refuse to implement the Tories’ Trade Union Bill. We appeal to the SNP to work with us to derail this bill,” Corbyn said.
Asked for a response to McCluskey’s call for an apology, a spokesman for Scottish Labour said: “Under Kezia Dugdale’s leadership there is a new generation in charge of Scottish Labour. We go into May’s election as the only party offering a break from Tory austerity. The SNP’s cuts to local school budgets show they can’t be trusted with securing the best future for our children.”