LABOUR’S main union backer has launched a scathing attack on Ed Miliband, accusing him of disenfranchising the party’s core support by backing government austerity measures.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey hit out after the party leadership chose at the weekend to support the continuation of the government’s public-sector pay freeze.
In an article for the Guardian newspaper, Mr McCluskey wrote that the stance could “lead to the destruction of the Labour Party as constituted and certain election defeat”.
Mr Miliband added: “The real points of differentiation between Labour and the government on the economy are now very hard to identify, the more so since Cameron and Clegg are cutely, if insincerely, positioning themselves as proactive on tax avoidance and executive pay.”
The union leader’s comments pile further pressure on Mr Miliband, who has faced fierce criticism over his leadership in recent days and poor opinion poll ratings.
But Mr Miliband yesterday told Labour MPs and peers that he had “the stomach for the fight” and there were more “tough choices” to be made over spending.
He delivered what aides called an “uncompromising” message about the challenges facing the party in a behind-closed-doors meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party.
Addressing 150-plus politicians, he defended shadow chancellor Ed Balls’s announcement that the party accepted the public-sector pay freeze.
But Mr McCluskey strongly rejected the argument that pay restraint would help create jobs and he criticised the Labour Party for its failure to consult with trade unions before making the “shift” in policy.
He said that it drew the party into conflict with millions of poorly paid public sector workers, who now faced years of effective wage cuts.
Officials from unions affiliated to Labour were left fuming over the weekend after Mr Balls told a conference that he backed the government’s cap on the pay of millions of workers.
The first trade union leaders knew of Mr Balls’ speech on Saturday was when they were contacted by the media for reaction.
They privately warned that the move could lose Labour the next election, but Mr McCluskey has now spoken out publicly to voice his anger. Writing in the Guardian, he said: “Ed Balls’ sudden weekend embrace of austerity and the government’s public-sector pay squeeze represents a victory for discredited Blairism at the expense of the party’s core supporters. It also challenges the whole course Ed Miliband has set for the party, and perhaps his leadership itself.
“Unions in the public sector are bound to unite to oppose the real pay cuts for workers over the next year. When we do so, it seems we will now be fighting the Labour front bench as well as the government.
“The political elite which was united in promoting the City-first deregulation policies that led to the crash is now united in asserting that ordinary people must pick up the tab for it. It leaves the country with something like a ‘national government’ consensus where, as in 1931, the leaders of the three big parties agree on a common agenda of austerity to get capitalism – be it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – back on its feet.”
Mr McCluskey said that this shared position of the three major political parties effectively left the half a million people who joined the TUC’s march last year to demand an alternative approach, and those across the wider country who were against the cuts “disenfranchised”.
Mr McCluskey continued: “Notwithstanding that it impacts on millions of our members, it is hard to imagine the City being treated in such a cavalier way in relation to a change in banking policy.
“This confronts those of us who have supported Ed Miliband’s bold attempt to move on from Blairism with a challenge.
“His leadership has been undermined as he is being dragged back into the swamp of bond-market orthodoxy.
“Having won on the measures, ‘new Labour’ will likely come for the man sooner or later, and that way lies the destruction of the Labour Party as constituted, as well as certain general election defeat.”
A senior official at another of Labour’s biggest union affiliates warned that union annual conferences this summer were now “certain” to vote on whether to quit the party.
“Let the taxpayers foot the bill, is likely to be the outcome,” he said.
Unions founded Labour and now supply about 90 per cent of the party’s funds.