Len McCluskey: “There is no machine politics anymore in the Labour party”
Len McCluskey insists he wants a united Labour party to take the fight to the Conservatives – but he will never be afraid to “call out” MPs. The Unite General Secretary talks to Sebastian Whale
It should only be a ten-minute walk from the Liverpool Echo Arena to the Hilton hotel – but not if it’s the Labour party conference and your name is Len McCluskey. The media and delegates alike collar the Unite general secretary as if he’s an A-list celebrity. “Sorry, it’s like trying to herd cats,” one of his aides says as I check-in on his arrival time while waiting in the lobby.
Even the comparative quiet of the Hilton does not bring McCluskey any respite. Union officials line up to shake his hand. He shoots the breeze with an old friend – former deputy leader of the Liverpool City Council Derek Hatton no less – as he gathers himself after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech.
We end up seated in a private room adjacent to the hotel bar for some solace from the mêlée, with mirrored walls that give it an air of a seedy 1980s gentlemen’s club. The nearby dining room would serve us no better, an aide tells McCluskey, as “people will just come up to you”.
Given the city we are in (and notwithstanding his reputation as Labour kingmaker), it is no real surprise that McCluskey is a big draw. He was born in Liverpool in 1950 and used to work on the nearby docks. “I live in London but my heart belongs to Liverpool,” McCluskey tells me. “This is a fabulous setting; the city has been rejuvenated to a degree, especially in the centre. Not so much in the outer parts of the city and certainly the towns that surround our big cities have been forgotten. [But] the spirit of Liverpool is mixed with a humour that has captured the conference.”
While he carries a rock star aura among his contemporaries, McCluskey is not short of his detractors. And the last few days in Liverpool have only highlighted this dichotomy: he has been accused of attempting to bully Labour MPs and condemned for previous statements on anti-Semitism.
For all his perceptions as an enforcer, McCluskey is a very affable man in person. But his softly-spoken voice often disguises the strength of his words. In his party conference speech, he attacked Chuka Umunna for allegedly plotting to form a breakaway party and hit out at Dame Margaret Hodge for calling Corbyn a racist and an anti-Semite.
How does targeting MPs in this way aid Corbyn’s conference message of unity?
“That’s a great question, it’s a really very good question and it’s a dilemma that I sometimes have. I want unity; I don’t want a breakaway so-called centrist party,” he says. Instead, he wants MPs to recognise that Corbyn is the “undisputed” leader, and rally behind the result of the 2017 general election and Labour’s position in the polls.
“Therefore, when they don’t, what do you do? Do you say, ‘well let’s not criticise because that might expose the differences, let’s just forget about it?’ I think there’s a danger in forgetting about it. It creates frustration and I think on occasions people have to be called out,” he continues.
“So I don’t have any regrets of calling out Margaret Hodge for her bizarre and disgraceful behaviour and I have no difficulty calling out Chuka, who’s a very clever and charismatic kind of MP who creates the image that somehow there’s something wrong inside the Labour party.
“It wasn’t me that wrote his article in The Independent where he effectively said that the Tory party in government was not fit, where he effectively said that the Labour party was not fit, and it was time for people to come together in the centre of politics. I never said that – he said that. So, if I criticise him for that, he has to recognise that he has to be accountable for his actions just as I do.
“But I do take your point about does that exasperate the situation and it’s a balanced judgment. I have to do what I think is right for the party. Remember, I can sometimes say things that other people can’t. I have lots of people saying to me ‘oh my god, that needed saying and we couldn’t say it’.”
McCluskey says he wants Labour MPs to “stop this sniping and undermining of the leadership” so the public can hear about the party’s proposals.
“Now, people at the end of the day might reject that alternative. But provided they are given the chance to listen to the alternative, to listen without Jeremy having to look behind him to see if anybody is knifing him in the back, that is surely the correct thing to do,” he says.
Responding to McCluskey’s speech, Umunna tweeted that he would not be “bullied into silence by anyone” and would continue to call out racism and bullying. “If Len McCluskey doesn’t like that, tough,” he said. When approached for comment, Umunna said he did not have much to add.
During a conversation this week, Hodge told me: “Len McCluskey is just bullying people into acting in the way he wants. I think it is disgraceful the Labour party has allowed the whole issue of anti-Semitism to have become such a major issue over the summer. It was totally unnecessary and could have been stopped.
“I’m not having Len McCluskey bullying me into what I should and should not do. Telling people what you think about them to their face is a million times better than slagging you off behind your back to journalists like you.”
She adds: “If he’s got something to say to me, he knows my phone number. I’m not going to be bullied by him and I think it’s cowardly to attack me. The real outrage is that the party has failed so long to get to grips with the problem of anti-Semitism.”
But McCluskey, who is a vocal proponent of greater “accountability” for Labour MPs, says accusations of bullying are used “in order to create an image once again that the Labour party is toxic”.
“I’ve got no intentions of bullying Chuka or anybody else. But I am allowed to express a view. And expressing a view and having differences of opinion, it’s not bullying, it’s not intimidation, it’s not intolerance, it’s called democratic debate,” he says.
The Labour party conference was, as these annual events go, a relatively harmonious affair. But there was cause for concern as some party delegates expressed anger over proposed changes to candidate selections for Labour MPs – with the unions firmly in their sights.
Pro-Jeremy Corbyn group Momentum went into conference calling for an ‘open selection’ process, to pave the way for “a new generation of Labour MPs”. Unite too officially backs mandatory reselections. But instead, delegates voted on a watered-down compromise that would see the threshold for forcing MPs to fight open selection battles lowered. Under the new rules, MPs would face a reselection contest if 33% of a constituency’s local branches and affiliated unions voted for it in a trigger ballot, down from 50%.
Activists vocalised their frustration on the conference floor (some shouted “shame on the unions”), despite Momentum agreeing to the reforms (which were passed by 65% to 35%). So what happened?
“I was shocked to see that division. It was very evident. And it means that somewhere along the line people have misjudged the unions,” McCluskey says.
“This was a decision by Jeremy Corbyn to try and come up with an alternative to see if he could bring people together. Now, what we were told in the unions was that this alternative was being supported by Momentum’s leadership. I spoke to them after the event and they were a bit shocked by the division. We were asked is there a way that you could support it in the cause of unity around the leader.”
But some believe the unions were behind the changes. In an article for the Morning Star, left-wing Labour MP Chris Williamson attacked Unite for its perceived about-turn on mandatory reselections and hit out at the “bureaucratic machine”.
“Had mandatory reselection gone to the floor of conference, then we would have voted for it,” McCluskey says. “I have to laugh at some of my colleagues who should know better – I’ll mention no names – talking about the bureaucratic machine. What bureaucratic machine are we talking about, because the machine is held by Corbynistas at the moment?
“The leader’s office, the general secretary of the Labour party, these are all big supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour NEC has a majority of Corbyn supporters. So what machine are they talking about?
“The fact is that this was a genuine effort by Jeremy to see if he could pull people together. The proposition that was being put forward, in my view, virtually gives selective mandatory reselection anyway and we were happy to support the leader because although we have our position on mandatory reselection, we also have policies to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. So there was no conflict for us. But it was a surprise.”
McCluskey says he is “less concerned now”, speaking days after the backlash, as the “healing process has been quite successful”. “The CLPs know that we’re on their side,” he adds. In a party of more than half a million members, there are always going to be contrasting views, he argues.
“There’s nothing wrong with differences of opinion and debate, providing it’s conducted in a comradely fashion. It can be a great, great strength.”
But PoliticsHome reported that McCluskey had an angry clash with Williamson in the wake of the Labour MP’s article. Was that a comradely interaction? “Look, Chris and I are friends and we exchanged views. I thought he was wrong to do an article that blamed Unite for ignoring our policies – we didn’t. And so, I just explained to Chris that that wasn’t the case,” he replies.
Williamson puts it to me in similar terms: “I wouldn’t say it was a clash. Look, people have got strong views in the party and we had a chat at the end of the day. Maybe not quite a chat, but yeah, we had an exchange of views.
“Len’s a good bloke, he stood behind Jeremy when it was difficult and he’s an outstandingly brilliant trade union leader. I’m very proud that he’s part of our movement and I’m really pleased that we’ve got him. Thanks to Len, he helped to see off the ill-fated coup against Jeremy.”
He adds: “The movement owes Len a huge debt of gratitude. It doesn’t mean we’re always to absolutely going to agree on every single thing – life would be a bit boring if you agreed entirely with everybody.”
Media interest in tensions between Unite and Momentum first appeared during the race to succeed Iain McNicol as Labour’s new general secretary. Jon Lansman, the chair of Momentum, originally stood against Jennie Formby, the former political director of Unite, before dropping out in March. With Momentum an insurgent force in Labour, and many of its supporters drawn in by its push for greater democratisation, it was perceived as a key battle on the left of the party.
“I know the media would like it to be a clash, but honestly, it isn’t,” McCluskey says.
“The Labour party general secretary position could have been handled better and I’ve spoken to Jon Lansman since and Jon and I are fine. Although it was promoted as Momentum versus Unite, it was nothing of the sort. We’re fine. I respect Momentum. I think the rank and file organisation is incredibly important and we want the same thing.”
In a warning to Williamson and co, he adds: “I absolutely don’t see any danger so long as certain people don’t try and stir it up for their own reasons. There’s no need for that… people who should know better should be a little more careful in their terminology and their accusations. It’s a different party now.”
He continues: “Some of the older members of CLPs remember the bad old days of the late 70s and early 80s when the rank and file constituents were attempting to implement more radical policies and were stopped by the unions. The unions in those days had 90 per cent of the votes at party conference.
“Now, maybe some of them think ‘oh no is this happening again?’ My answer is absolutely not. There is no machine politics anymore in the Labour party. There is a genuine belief that we need to get behind a radical manifesto for a decent man. So no, there are no differences between Unite, Momentum and the rank and file CLP constituents.”
Williamson, who says he will continue to campaign for greater democracy in the Labour party, agrees: “There was a bit of frustration at that particular point in relation to open selections, which didn’t go through. I think there is a bit of frustration about that, but I wouldn’t say there’s friction.
“People are trade unionists as well as party members in that sense. They are part of the same institutions.”
McCluskey’s trade unionist credentials run deep. He worked as a shop steward for the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) at the age of 19, serving as its national secretary from 1990 and national organiser in 2004. In 2007, he was appointed assistant general secretary for Industrial Strategy of Unite (which was a merger of the TGWU and Amicus). He was elected Unite general secretary in November 2010.
McCluskey became known as Red Len for his support for the British Airways cabin crew strike in 2010. McCluskey has been transparent about his left-wing disposition. He joined the Labour party in 1970 and was supportive for (but not a member of) the Militant Tendency. His shored up Corbyn’s position during the 2016 leadership contest – a decision which led to bitter relations with his former flatmate, Tom Watson.
Though McCluskey says that nothing keeps him awake at night (“I sleep fairly soundly”), he recognises “huge challenges” ahead posed by automation for his union’s million-plus membership. He wants politicians to debate the future of work, including reviewing the arguments for a four-day week and a universal basic income (which John McDonnell this summer said he was considering).
“I don’t profess for a minute to have a magic wand or know the answers to them. All I do know is that we need to have a proper debate and more than anything else, we need a government who will facilitate that debate and act as a guiding hand,” he says.
On trade union rights, he wants Britain to have parity with other European countries. He argues that the UK defeated fascism and “gave Europe all of the freedoms that they currently have”, and it is a “stain on every government that we’ve had since the war” that British workers enjoy fewer rights than their European counterparts. “We now have a Labour leader who is prepared to recognise that. That is absolutely vital if to do nothing else, to stem the inequality in our society,” he adds.
Another more immediate concern comes in the shape of Brexit. He sparked a row at conference after he said the option of remaining would not be on the ballot paper at a second EU referendum. In his conference speech, Sir Keir Starmer insisted all options – including remain – were being considered.
McCluskey, who says “Keir made a speech – fair enough”, stands by his view that any vote should be about the deal the PM brings back from Brussels and believes Corbyn’s pledge to honour the referendum result is pivotal.
“I think it would be dangerous to reopen the divisions that we had in the referendum,” he says. “So in that scenario, we would campaign to reject the deal and if the people rejected the deal, including the Leave voters – who would understand by rejecting the deal doesn’t mean that they are changing their mind about coming out of Europe – then the government would fall and we would have to then have a general election. So, they’re the scenarios that I see.”
McCluskey says Article 50 would be extended “without a doubt” in the event of a general election, which Labour would call for if May loses a Commons vote on Brexit. “Brussels would be happy to,” he declares.