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Call to unite over Labour pains

Published 18/05/2015

Harriet Harman will set out details of Labour's leadership election
Harriet Harman will set out details of Labour's leadership election

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman and the boss of Britain's biggest union have sought to calm a row over the future of the party following its disastrous general election result.

Unite's general secretary Len McCluskey, who has been involved in a bitter war of words with outgoing Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, said he would not support any move to disaffiliate from Labour and backed the party to "rise like a phoenix" from the ashes of its defeat.

Ms Harman, who said Ed Miliband's replacement at the head of Labour must appeal to the whole country rather than just the party faithful, insisted that although the role of the unions in deciding the next leader had changed there would be no break with Unite.

Debates about the historic link between the party and the unions have been raging since Mr Miliband steered through reforms last year.

Unions gave Labour the bulk of the money the party raised for the general election campaign.

Sources told the Press Association that Labour raised £12 million in its unsuccessful attempt to win power, with £9 million coming from the unions.

The amount shows how reliant Labour is for money from the trade unions, backing up the belief that the party would otherwise go bankrupt.

Trade union conferences in the coming months are sure to discuss the relationship with Labour and there are likely to be the usual calls for a re-think of the link.

But Mr McCluskey insisted: "We have no plans to disaffiliate from Labour. The party has never been more united."

He added that everyone now agreed it was time to debate Labour's future but he believed there was an "exciting opportunity" for the party.

Divisions over the future of the Labour movement after the election became clear as Mr Murphy declared he was resigning as Scottish leader and delivered a stinging parting shot at Mr McCluskey, describing his support as a political "kiss of death" for the party.

Ms Harman was challenged about the row by journalists at Labour's headquarters in London and appealed for "cool heads".

In response to Mr Murphy's attack on Mr McCluskey, Ms Harman said: "We have had a bitter defeat, we have had a thumping in Scotland. It would be very surprising if some people didn't, from time to time, express an exasperation and frustration and anger."

Insisting that the union link would remain, she said : "I don't think there is going to be a break between Unite or any of the unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party.

"We have had a lot of soul searching to do across all parts of our party and we will have robust discussions. But, no, I don't think there is going to be a disaffiliation."

The unions played a key role in Mr Miliband's election as Labour leader under the old electoral college system which gave them a third of the votes.

Ms Harman stressed that the influence of the unions over the decision on leadership had been altered by the move to a "one person, one vote" electoral system.

The next Labour leader will be elected on September 12, and Ms Harman said the contest should involve a series of "robust, tough, televised hustings which involve the public" with events in battleground areas the party had failed to win.

"Above all, we will let the public in and elect a leader who can lead not just the party but the whole country," she said.

Ms Harman criticised the "cosy" deputy leadership contest which led to her victory.

"We asked ourselves 'Who do we like?'. That was the wrong question. We should have asked - as we made our choice - 'Who does the country like?'.

Promising a more open contest than the one which led to Mr Miliband's victory, she said: "I f there is one thought that should drive the thinking as we elect a new leadership team, it is this: which of them has the best qualities and leadership skills most likely to win over the support of the public?

"Not the politically-obsessed public, the people like us, but the people who most of the time are busy getting on with their lives, not thinking about politics."

Under the new leadership election rules, party members, members of affiliated unions and societies, and a new category of "registered supporters" who pay £3 will each have a single vote on Mr Miliband's replacement.

So far, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall have declared their intention to run for the leadership.

Labour veteran Frank Field said the party should stop taking money from the trade unions.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One the next leader should have a "new conversation with the trade unions", setting challenges for them on issues like the living wage and productivity to " give them a constructive agenda and get away from this agenda which makes them look as though they are bullying the Labour Party".

Mr Burnham's campaign was given a boost by the public endorsement of Dan Jarvis - the ex-Para turned Labour MP who was seen as a leading contender for the top job before ruling himself out for family reasons.

The Barnsley Central MP said he believed the shadow health secretary had shown himself to have the qualities to become the " unifying leader with the broad appeal to win those people back" whose support the party had lost.

"I've served under many leaders in my life and I never got to choose them when I served in the Army. I'm choosing to support Andy Burnham because I'm convinced he has the strength, experience and character needed to bring our party together and restore Labour's connection with the British people," he wrote in the Daily Mirror.

"His journey from humble roots to the Cabinet speaks to the sense of ambition Labour should have for every child."

He lauded Mr Burnham for confronting the lack of public faith in Labour's ability to run the economy and for calling on David Cameron to " deliver credible immigration reforms".

"Labour will win again when we speak for Britain. We face a long and difficult road back. Electing Andy Burnham to lead us on that journey should be our first step."

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