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Unite’s election could be a game changer for Corbyn

January 5th, 2017

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Don Brind on the big LAB movement battle

If Len McCluskey had had his way, Jeremy Corbyn would never have become Labour leader. The general secretary of Unite opposed the Miliband reforms to Labour’s election system that gave the serial rebel a path to the job he’d never dreamt of doing.

After his second landslide in 2016 Corbyn looked unassailable. The official line from the Team Corbyn, as well as senior figures like deputy leader Tom Watson, is that the leadership issue is “settled”.

McCluskey’s decision to trigger an early election for his job as Unite General Secretary by resigning and standing again has left things looking very unsettled.

Those Labour MPs – a large majority – who hope for a new leader to take them into the 2020 General Election are delighted as the development. One veteran Left winger and Unite member said McCluskey’s defeat by Midlands regional secretary Gerard Coyne would be a “game changer” for the party. But he has warned MPs not to get too closely involved in the contest because it would undermine Coyne’s key charge against McCluskey that he is too involved in Labour politics.

Central to Coyne’s campaign is pushing up turnout from the 15% in 2013 when McCluskey easily saw off a challenge from the Left winger Jerry Hicks by 144,570 votes to 79,819. This time the Left challenge comes from Fujitsu worker Ian Allison  He accuses McCluskey of “backsliding” on the issue of immigration and is clearly pitching for the votes of Corbyn supporters.

Can McCluskey be beaten? Yes, according to a Coyne strategy paper reported by the Independent.  It says that if turnout is low like in 2013, “Len wins again (probably). If we make it 20 per cent, it’s too close to call, if we make it 25 per cent or more we win.”

But even if McCluskey is re-elected it seems the clock is ticking on Corbyn’s leadership. His remarks in an interview with the Mirror was reported by Labour List as a signal that Corbyn could be gone in time for a 2020 General Election. McCluskey told the Mirror:

“Let’s suppose we are not having a snap election. It buys into this question of what happens if we get to 2019 and opinion polls are still awful.The truth is everybody would examine that situation, including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell …. These two are not egomaniacs, they are not desperate to cling on to power for power’s sake.”

Although McCluskey denounced “media spin” and insisted “as well as my full support Jeremy Corbyn has support of our elected executive who actually make decisions for Unite”, he is not alone among Corbyn supporters in recognising that dire poll rating could lead to his demise. Before Christmas,  Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said that the ratings needed to improve “within the coming 12 months,”. She was quickly followed by former London mayor Ken Livingstone who said: “If in a year’s time it’s still as bad as this, I think we would all be worried.”

If McCluskey, Abbott and Livingstone are worried Corbyn should be too.

Don Brind