Sketch: The TUC on the eve of battle
- 11 Sep 06, 07:51 AM
Sunday is a round of press conferences and receptions at the TUC, in which, if you are well attuned, you can work out the meaning behind what people are actually saying. I went into yesterday with the following unanswered questions:
- how much support is there for Alan Johnson, the only potential Blairite candidate who could hope to pick up backing here?
- what's the impact of John McDonnell's candidacy, beyond raising policies that nobody else is willing to?
- who are the unions thinking of for deputy leader?
- how are they feeling about Gordon Brown?
Here are the answers:
1. Johnson: the big four union leaders have clearly been talking to Alan Johnson, and not just about deputy leadership. However Tony Woodley's statements about Johnson were fairly unequivocal...
: he did not say "we are not supporting him" - he did say he would not like to see some of Johnson's statements about the unions coming from a Labour leader. Other high ranking officials in the T&G and Amicus dismissed my theory that Johnson could, with the right form of words, present himself as "the same as Gordon only better". Remember however that Mr Johnson, while pensions minister, did several things to the unions' liking. Thus, in summary, my theory that Johnson had a chance among the unions was rubbish, unless he himself is planning some form of big leftwing-sounding policy speech. Indeed, for those rusty on 't Labour movement, if you see the Education Secretary at any social gathering where the big four union leaders are present - assume intrigue.
2. McDonnell: The general secretary of the NUJ is going round with a "John 4 Leader" badge, but then the NUJ are not affiliated to the party. Mark Serwotka, GS of of the Civil and Public Servants, likewise has been backing McDonnell, but only in a personal capacity. The left wing candidate will only matter if he can get on the ballot paper: for this he needs 42 MPs, which he has no momentum for. However, what this conference shows is that - I am informed - he is getting formal backing from the trade union broad lefts. In three of the big four unions - Amicus, T&G and Unison - the broad lefts are what's left of the old Communist Party-aligned movements, thought they tend now to be solidly Labour left. They run significant branches and have support among regional officials etc. For McDonnell to pick up formal support from the Amicus broad left is important for two reasons: unions and constituency parties can create a momentum for McDonnell so that, if there is no Blairite challenger to Brown, and Brown insists there should be an election, several centre left MPs might feel duty bound to sign John's papers and, lo, the left gets to exert a policy voice on the contest while the right buckle under to Gordon. It may be fantasy island but it is being talked of as a scenario. In any case, the ability for Derek Simpson of Amicus to walk in to Gordon's office and say: "my members are thinking of backing McDonnell" is not a bad bargaining chip.
3. Left deputy leader? I hesitate before introducing speculation rather than hard fact to the Newsnight blog but: John Cruddas. Enough people have speculated to me that he has been approached by the big four that it is worth saying "you read it here first". I saw Mr Cruddas make a large arc around two BBC reporters holding microphones, who had also heard said speculation.
4. The mood music around Gordon? Terrible. Most union activists and leaders see him as part of the problem - in particular because of PFI, failure to oppose Iraq, spending cuts, the Operating and Financial Review law - cancelled by Gordon on the eve of last year's CBI. Most unions will back him but try to wrestle policy concessions. And, in the very dark recesses, well away from the tireless Hazel Blears MP (the only Blairite outrider to venture here last night) they will say "on some things Charles Clark has a point". How they will receive Gordon when he speaks at Tuesday's dinner will only be known to themselves, the spin doctors and the army of Polish and Lithuanian waitresses who staff the big hotel dining rooms. Journalists are banned. I feel a bout of rat-like cunning coming on. Witam Chancellor! Dover sole? Bardzo chetnie!