Labour and the unions are destined to remain in their tense but loveless marriage

The McCluskey volcano will probably remain dormant if Burnham wins

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The Independent Online

As it stumbles around in traumatised oblivion like the nuclear war survivor in a third-rate sci-fi series, Labour’s only solace lies in nihilistic resignation. This may not be a wildly nourishing crumb of comfort, but the party seems so irrelevant that nothing, to borrow from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, really matters at all.

Time will pass, the government will piss off the electorate, the engulfing despair will begin to lift, and what now resembles a mortal existential crisis may be seen to have been greatly exaggerated. But today the Labour hole looks so infernal, and the obstacles to recovery so monumental, that fretting over Len McCluskey of Unite seems equivalent to a stage 4 liver cancer patient panicking about an ingrowing toenail.

Yet there is some fretfulness about Labour’s chief bankroller clumsily flexing his union’s financial muscle in the twin causes of displacing one Labour leader and electing another.

He achieved the first leg of this win double on Saturday by effectively ousting Jim Murphy in Scotland, sparking a slanging match that came much closer to comic relief than Labour has any right to expect in the circumstances.

There, McCluskey was less executioner than euthanasiast. Someone had to put Murphy out of everyone’s misery. The only thing he got right during his brief stint in charge was confidently asserting, on the day he was elected, that Labour would not lose one seat to the SNP.

On the matter of who will lead the national party, McCluskey will probably get his wish there, too, though his personal preference is clearer than his thinking about how to ensure it. Obviously, he wants Andy Burnham, who presents himself as the change candidate (Don’t. Be. Daft) but is in fact running on the Best Of An Exceedingly Mediocre Bunch platform. Burnham is even money with Betfair, and even at that short price looks a steal.

In any parallel universe in which Labour was deemed capable of offering a viable alternative to the Tories within 10 to 15 years, an alarmist conspiracy theory would already be gracing the Daily Mail. With the lethal menace of the Tartan Army colonising Westminster having receded, that newspaper title and others like it would, if they sensed any embryonic threat from Labour, be refocusing their synthetic paranoia on the Scouse Dominion.

McCluskey and Burnham are both sons of Anfield, after all, albeit the older man is a Liverpool supporter and the younger favours Everton. But fans of those clubs are famously free of the sectarian hatred that afflicts other footballing neighbours, so who can be sure that the relationship isn’t closer and more ancient than either admits? Who can know, for instance, that the teenage Len didn’t secretly babysit four-year-old Andy, inculcating his infant mind with bed-time fairy stories from those revolutionary Brothers Grimm, Lenin and Trotsky?

Rather than a political chameleon, switching with ease from sycophantic Blarite to Brownite loyalist to the arch centrist we see today, might Burnham be a sleeper on the lines of Angelina Jolie’s Russian-American double agent in the movie Salt? Taught by a diehard red to pretend to be blue-ish (hence the subliminal messaging of Everton), in other words, but primed one day to carry out the mission to return us to the hell of the 1970s, when union barons of McCluskey’s ilk shoved Britain to the precipice of anarchy? McCluskey even has a pet name for Burnham. On the weekend he threatened to end Unite’s links to Labour unless it picks “the correct candidate”, and the nickname sounded as if it stretches back 40 years to the swings in the Stanley Park playground. As in: “All right, the correct candidate, cahm down, cahm down. Five more minutes of Marxist dialectic, and I’ll buy you a 99. With two flakes.”

McCluskey withdrew that threat on Monday, though how long it will be until his next is anyone’s guess. On 1 April 2014, he threatened to disaffiliate from Labour if it lost the election, which I vaguely recall it did, and spend Unite’s  money on forming a “Workers’ Party”. If the incorrect candidate is elected, he might revive that. It has a certain logic because whomoever Labour stands for today, it clearly isn’t what McCluskey calls “ordinary working people”.  A Workers’ Party would be better placed to dissipate Ukip’s appeal in the industrial North than the lukewarm pro-business, pro-social justice, pro-milk’n’cookies’n’hardworking families, slightly anti-immigration hotpotch the successful candidate, correct or otherwise, will feel compelled by the 7 May cataclysm to cobble together.

The McCluskey volcano, though doubtless grumbling about his refusal to reposition Labour decisively to the left, will probably remain dormant if Burnham wins. The likes of Frank Field dream of a neo-Clause IV moment when Labour tells the unions to stick their money. But like so many of Field’s thoughts, this is unthinkable.

Since no party can even pretend to compete for power without money, and since no other technically electable party will pay even lip service to their interests, Labour and the unions seem destined, for a while at least, to remain in a tense and loveless marriage like a couple who yearn to be apart but cannot afford the divorce.

Labour has far more hideous problems than McCluskey, however irksome his legitimate-if-crude exercise of influence on his members’ behalf.

Lenny’s pain is in his ears and in his eyes. But beneath the blue suburban skies beyond the party no one is looking or listening.

If the correct candidate lands the odds, the day a headline in The Sun, Telegraph or Daily Mail raises the spectre of a Scouse Axis of Evil will be the day Labour starts to feel relevant again. The holding of breath is not advised.