Replacing Len McCluskey as leader of Unite could “definitely” help Labour to get a new leader ahead of the next general election, Ed Balls has suggested.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the former Shadow Chancellor said that the left-wing leader of Britain’s biggest union was “not of the Labour Party” and didn’t have its interests at heart.
Balls said that defeat for McCluskey in a general secretary election would be a “staging post” on a route to giving MPs and unions more of a say over the party’s leadership rules.
He added that Gerard Coyne, the expected challenger to McCluskey, had done a “really good job” in protecting workers’ jobs and conditions.
Balls spoke out as he also warned that Labour “seem to have gone backwards” on pledges to reducing migration, moving it further from the voters it needed to win a general election.
McCluskey, who has proved a crucial ally to Jeremy Corbyn during this summer’s attempted ‘coup’ by shadow ministers, is due to end his current five-year term in 2018.
On Wednesday, the Unite chief played down the speculation but refused to deny suggestions that he wanted to fast-track elections for his own post to coincide with elections for the union’s executive committee.
If he wins, he will almost certainly be Unite leader up to the 2020 general election, strengthening both his own position and that of Corbyn.
Unite remains one of Labour’s biggest donors and its members have key votes on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which decides on leadership rules.
Balls said yesterday that Labour would only win if its membership better reflected voters and if it restored the ‘electoral college’ of MPs, unions and members to get a new leader.
Asked if the replacement of McCluskey was one route to restoring the ‘electoral college’ and changing leader, Balls replied: “There are a number of staging posts along the way and that’s definitely one.
“The one thing Len McCluskey was always very clear with me about, pre-2015 when I would talk to him as Shadow Chancellor, is when I would say to him ‘this is what we need to do for the Labour party’, he would always explain to me he wasn’t really of the Labour party - and that wasn’t really his background or where he came from.
“And therefore appealing to him on behalf of the Labour party wasn’t really going to work.
“Now that’s a problem when that’s the attitude of the largest trade union. He obviously will feel differently now that Jeremy Corbyn is leader but that’s partly because Jeremy Corbyn is being supported by many people who’ve not been in the Labour party for a very long time.”
Asked about Coyne, the Unite West Midlands regional secretary seen as a ‘moderate’ challenger to McCluskey, Balls said: “I’ve known Gerard for years I think he’s done a really good job as regional secretary of the West Midlands.
He added: “But I’m not close to what’s happening in Unite at the moment.”
As part of his wide-ranging interview with HuffPost UK, Balls also said that labour had to persuade voters it was in touch with their concerns on immigration, declaring that EU freedom of movement has “had its day” in the UK.
“Before the last election Labour was talking about reducing migration and we seem to have gone backwards.
“What people want to know is that you are going to have controls, people want control, they think that numbers need to come down.
“I’ve been consistently arguing since 2010 that while migration is good for our economy that it needs to be controlled and managed and that free movement has had its day.
“It’s increasingly unsustainable, you’ve seen the same pressures mounting in other countries. Politics has got to face up to this. It’s neither sensible to shut your borders or to have open borders and free movement, you need a managed process.”
Balls added that Theresa May had to draft a transitional Brexit plan that reformed migration while maintaining as much trade as possible with Europe.
“I think the rest of Europe will get to the point where they understand that this has to be managed. But the challenge is for that to happen on a timetable which can get us to a sensible outcome for Brexit rather than a much more economically damaging one.
“I think it’s vital that politics in our country accepts the result of the referendum and makes it work. I argue for a Brexit which is quite close to how things would have been in a reformed Europe outside the single currency, rather than a lurch to a more isolationist Britain. But we need to take the time to get there.
“It’s going to take time for Britain and our European partners to work out what the right long term relationship is.”
Balls also talked in depth about his own political future, admitting that he felt the pull of public service but was unsure about his next steps.
He said that in the UK, former Prime Ministers didn’t have the same status and public platform as former US Presidents, and it was difficult to find a new role.
“That’s talking about Prime Minister, when you move to people who have not been Prime Minister, it’s a bit more open.
“I was a Cabinet minister, I was a Shadow Chancellor, I was someone who wanted to be Chancellor and didn’t become it. Your career didn’t end in a complete way.”
In his new memoir, ‘Speaking Out’, Balls says that helping individual constituents remains among his most cherished achievements as an MP, and he misses that direct connection “very much”.
He told HuffPost: “That purpose, and public service is a similar way of saying it, is something which is really driving.”
Balls said that if he did well or badly on Strictly Come Dancing or did or well or badly in TV interviews these days, “it doesn’t matter to anybody else other than really me”. “If I do well, that’s good, but if I do badly who really cares?
“Whereas if you are being the Shadow Chancellor or Chancellor, then you have have a responsibility to your Shadow Cabinet, your Cabinet, your party, your colleagues, to the people whose lives will be made better or worse whether you make the right or wrong decision, and that is a different realm and scale of purpose. It’s not about self.”
He said that Cameron’s own departure underscored how precarious political life could be, and how politicians had to do something to come to terms with their losses.
The former PM’s tweeted congratulations after his Strictly Come Dancing exit suggested he had finally let go of his approach to Balls as “the most annoying man in Britain”.
“In 2015, I was defeated. You could see him thinking ‘aha, vindication after 2010’. And 18 months later, there has been a big turnaround, and the guys who were in 2015 triumphant are all out.
“When you have something taken away, it makes you more thoughtful and reflective, and you think about what was and what’s gone, maybe it gives you a bit more humility. David Cameron was on the top and he’s crashed down.
“And maybe as I experienced after 2015 that period to reflect and think how up and down it is and how things can be in your hands and then go, how ephemeral it is, there’s him out, thinking ‘what have I got to do other than write my memoirs?’
“And I’ve got this new thing which everybody is enjoying. It shows he’s coming to terms with his change that he decided to congratulate me.”
Balls said that his old rival George Osborne, who has kept in touch over the past year, was clearly still interested in front line politics.
“I don’t get the feeling that he’s given up on politics at all. Whereas I genuinely don’t know how things are going to turn out.
“I’ve not done a [Michael] Portillo and decided to rush back and do a by-election within six months, I’ve not done a George Osborne and decided to set out my manifesto.
“When he says he’s going to throw himself into science or artificial intelligence or something new, that makes sense to me. I think a backward-looking hankering, ‘If we had won the referendum’..I think that can be quite debilitating, I don’t think he should be the Foreign Secretary across the water.
“In some ways David Miliband has had a great time doing his New York work but every time he comes back into British politics and says how it would have been, it seems to have more pathos than vision.”
Balls revealed that he was so busy on Strictly that he deliberately didn’t focus on Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement.
“Last week, while Philip Hammond was doing his statement I was doing the tango. I was practicing with Katya in a dance studio in Old Street and then popping out next door to get a Vietnamese take-away.
“I said no to every interview and request because I don’t really want to be a semi-detatched commentator on Budgets, you need to be on the inside. I didn’t want to be the Shadow Chancellor in exile. It’s not my job.
“But I saw on Twitter the reams of comments about the similarity between the platform we won the election on and what Hammond did.
“When Paul Johnson at the IFS the next day mimicked Michael Heseltine by saying ‘It’s not osborne’s, it’s Balls’, I had a wry smile.
“But I worried about the future of our country when I looked at the fiscal numbers.
“I felt some sympathy with Philip Hammond because he’s been handed a very difficult political inheritance because of the combination of Brexit and the nature of the Cabinet he’s now in. I have a lot of understanding of how hard that is for him.”
But he said that dance partner Katya Jones could see how the politics distracted him from his Strictly practice.
“Katya had a very strong view about this, if I ever start thinking too much about Brexit or politics, it would put me off for hours.
“Once, she turned to me and said ‘will you stop thinking about the country?! The country isn’t going anywhere, get back to the dancing’.”
This is the second part of our Ed Balls interview. Read the first part HERE.
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