Unite boss Len McCluskey is often painted as a left-wing ideologue. But does he have a more pragmatic side? And what might that mean for Brexit?by Donald Macintyre / September 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
Given the Durham Miners’ Association’s roots in 19th-century Methodism, it’s unlikely that any speaker at its annual Gala, traditionally a family outing, had exclaimed from the podium, “you should fucking well be ashamed of yourself,” until Len McCluskey did this summer.
It had been a bad week for the Labour leadership. Protests were multiplying after a BBC Panorama programme on the party’s handling of anti-semitism complaints. McCluskey was venting his outrage at deputy leader Tom Watson for criticising Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary and ally of Jeremy Corbyn, while she was undergoing chemotherapy. It was the most electric moment in a rally during which the Unite leader had denounced—in a characteristic echo of “The Red Flag”—“the cowards who flinch and the traitors who sneer.”
With McCluskey, the personal is often political: the big row that damp afternoon concerned a once-close friend (Watson) and a woman who is the mother of one of his sons (Formby). But it was also about the future direction of the Labour Party and McCluskey’s determination to keep it on a Corbynite path.
As Britain staggers towards a no-deal cliff edge and potentially a general election, few political personalities are as important as McCluskey’s. Often portrayed as an ideologue and fighter, he can also be a pragmatist and a fixer. This complex character has already been powerful in settling—and unsettling—Labour’s anguished position on Brexit. And with the parliamentary arithmetic tight, he could help to settle whether the country topples over the brink.
Can one trade unionist really wield such influence? If so, why? For a start, Unite is the biggest single contributor to Labour. It’s not just regular donations—£540,000 in the first quarter of 2019 alone—but the huge £15m political fund it can deploy in an election. Affiliated unions also have votes at conference, seats on the National Executive Committee, and a powerful voice in debates over the party manifesto. Mechanics aside, there’s also a very personal connection with Labour’s leader. Unite bankrolled Corbyn’s first successful leadership campaign, and McCluskey has continually rallied to his defence ever since. Corbyn might have been toppled without his backing, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to resist for so long the growing pressure from the constituency grassroots and many in the Corbynite campaign group Momentum to make Labour an unequivocally Remain party.