The leaders of Unite and GMB, two of the three biggest unions affiliated to the Labour Party, have responded worryingly to the speeches by shadow chancellor Ed Balls on 3 June, and by Labour leader Ed Miliband on 6 June.
Balls and Miliband said that Labour, if elected, would stick with Tory spending plans for 2015-6. That effectively gives George Osborne a blank cheque for the new cuts which he will announce on 26 June, and which even Tory ministers are resisting as excessive.
They also talked of “a cap on social security spending” which would start from levels set by Tory cuts and make improvements only if balanced by further cuts.
All that was offset only by vaguer talk, with many fewer specific commitments, on issues like more house-building.
On previous record, you would expect Len McCluskey of Unite and Paul Kenny of GMB to criticise.
In the New Statesman of 24 April McCluskey said: “If he [Miliband] is daft enough to get sucked into the old Blairite ‘neoliberalism wasn’t too bad and we just need to tinker with it a little bit’... then not only will he fail but I fear for the future of the Labour Party”. On 22 June Unite is sponsoring the People’s Assembly, a big anti-cuts rally in London.
The union leaders do not follow through the criticism by putting down motions for Labour Party conference (where, with other unions and a big chunk of the constituency delegates, they could win a majority for anti-cuts commitments) — but they usually criticise.
Yet on 6 June McCluskey praised Miliband’s speech: “Ed Miliband’s speech offers hope that there is an alternative to George Osborne’s punishing experiment with the national economy... The jobs guarantee, action on demeaning, insecure work and a drive to embed the living wage are a good start... If Ed Miliband continues in this vein, then he will win working people back to Labour”.
Kenny (also on 6 June) chimed in: “Ed Miliband’s commitment to tackle the affordable homes crisis will be welcomed and applauded as the first positive step in dealing with the housing benefit scandal... Also his commitment to tackle low pay... exactly the type of policies that will win working people back to Labour”.
Most Labour left-wingers dissent. John Percival wrote on the “Left Futures” blog: “Ed Miliband’s speech represents a complete capitulation. Capitulation to the Tories, capitulation to the media and capitulation to the Blairites within the Labour Party who for months have been trying to push him into accepting many of the Government’s welfare cuts”.
Jon Lansman pointed out: “Ed Balls’s speech... was made without any discussion whatsoever within the party’s formal policy structure or amongst MPs. Even the shadow cabinet, received only scant information in advance of the speech about its content.
“On the very day that Ed Balls made his speech last week, there was a joint meeting of the three Labour policy commissions that deal with aspects of the economy, but the macroeconomic stance of the next Labour government was not on the agenda”.
Labour grassroots activists have, however, little chance of pulling Balls and Miliband into line without the support of the big unions. Have McCluskey and Kenny been coaxed into backing Miliband by private promises of concessions if they silence criticism?
The rank and file of Unite and GMB should have their say.