Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey thought speech that bought Labour delegates to their feet was "extraordinary", but not in a good way.
Top trade unionist Len McCluskey has criticised Tom Watson’s barnstorming speech to the Labour conference.
Mr McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, said he found the speech by the Black Country MP “extraordinary”.
And he said it would be “interesting to see what happens” if Mr Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader, had to defend his position in an election of Labour members and supporters.
Mr Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, received a lengthy standing ovation from Labour activists when he praised the achievements of recent Labour governments and said: “I don’t know why we’ve been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our own record is not the way to enhance our brand.”
Mr McCluskey has been General Secretary of Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and Ireland, since 2011. He is a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, and is seen as one of the most powerful figures backing the Labour leader.
Unite is due to hold an election of its own in 2018, when the post of General Secretary will be contested, and this is seen as a key battle which could help determine the future of the Labour Party.
In the past, trade unions were seen as bulwarks of moderation which prevented Labour being taken over by the hard left.
Moderates in the Labour movement are keen to see one of their own taking over leadership of Unite. Gerard Coyne, West Midlands regional secretary of Unite, is a potential candidate.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr McCluskey said: “Tom’s speech was extraordinary.
“It confused me. It seemed to be saying that New Labour and the third way was the way forward again.
“It doesn't surprise me ... because Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are putting forward an alternative.
“The right wing of the party have got no vision and so they are going back to yesteryear.”
He added: “During the Blair years, of course they did lots of good things but we still lost 1 million manufacturing jobs.
“The seeds of inequality that we’re suffering today were watered and sown there.
Asked by Sky News presenter Adam Boulton if it was time for Labour to have a new Deputy Leader, he said: “If Tom wants to try and refresh his mandate it’d be interesting to see what happens.”
In his speech to the conference, Tom Watson said: “The 11 years of Labour government between 1997 and 2008 were a completely unbroken period of economic growth. We made the economy work like never before or since; and we lifted half a million children out of poverty; and lifted a million pensioners out of poverty; and gave millions of low paid workers the decency of a national minimum wage; and introduced a radically redistributive system of tax credits; and winter fuel payments, free TV licences, free bus travel for older people.
“More than 100 new hospitals, more than 200,000 new doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters - bringing waiting lists down, school standards up, crime down. More than doubling our overseas aid budget. I could go on all afternoon about what we achieved during eleven years of economic growth.
“From a position of national prosperity, we had the space to do good things and not just economically, but imaginatively; the nation as a whole bought in to social justice. From the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity, social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain.
“I don’t know why we’ve been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our own record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won’t win elections like that and we need to win elections.
“The Prime Minister could call one next week. Now is the time to be proud of our party. We have to believe we can win, and remember how much we achieve when we do.”
He responded to a heckler by pointing out that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had called for an end to division. Mr Watson told Mr Corbyn, who was listening to the speech, “I don’t think she got your unity memo, Jeremy”.
He continued: “In the past, big businesses were too easily cast as predators. We meant to say that we would stand up to the abuse of corporate power as the Tories never will. But we ended up sounding like we were anti-business; anti-prosperity; anti-success. We’re not and we never have been. Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy. Money’s not the problem. Business isn’t bad. The real world is more complicated than that, as any practical trade unionist will tell you. Businesses are where people work. The private sector’s what generates the money to pay for our schools and hospitals.
“We can afford the best health service in the world because we are one of the most prosperous countries in the world. That’s a fact and we forget it at our peril. And I don’t say this because it’s what wins elections, I say it because it is true. And people know that it’s true. And that’s why it wins elections. And the British people need that from us. We’re in the seventh year now of a Tory government and the last time that happened I looked round and it was seventeen years of Tory government.
“I was 30 when we finally got back into power and I’d been seven years old when Labour had previously won a general election. I’ve never got over growing up under Thatcher and that’s not what I want for my children. I don’t want it for anyone’s children. We can’t let that happen again. We can’t fail today’s seven year olds. We can’t let them grow up in Tory schools, paying to go to Tory hospitals, working all hours for low pay in jobs the Tories have degraded.
“We must be again what we are at our core: the Party of Britain. Of the real British values the Tories can never understand; of compassion and fairness alongside enterprise and fierce independence. This is no nation of ideologues. We know that and that’s our advantage over the Tories.”