Illustration: Tim McDonagh

Fixer or fighter? Inside the political personality of Len McCluskey

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?
September 1, 2019

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.

Anti-Brexit Labour insiders tend to blame those immediately around Corbyn for the party’s ambivalent stance: communications chief Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray, a former communist who advises the Labour leader, and Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they are a surrogate for the fourth “M”—with whom the other three are all closely associated, and surely the most powerful of them all. Though Murray advises Corbyn on a part-time basis, he spends the rest of the week being McCluskey’s chief of staff. And McCluskey has a close relationship with Murphy that many assume to be romantic (something McCluskey will not confirm: “my personal life is nothing to do with anyone else”). And then, of course, there’s the link with Formby.

So McCluskey doesn’t just write Labour’s cheques, he’s closely linked to the people who form its ruling cabal. As Brexit reaches its denouement, he is worth getting to know.

*** McCluskey’s roots in Labour, and working-class Liverpool, run deep. “You know the old song, ‘I was born in Liverpool / down by the docks / me religion is Catholic / Occupation: hard knocks,’” he told me when I met him at Unite’s headquarters this summer, implying that the lyrics sum it all up—even though he also says his childhood was happy. Politics wasn’t much discussed in his two-up two-down home. But it was Labour. His mother was the “powerhouse in the family,” his father a “trade unionist without being an activist,” and also “the loveliest man I ever met. One of my regrets in life is that I never told him I loved him. Maybe it wasn’t the working-class thing to do.” McCluskey senior was a decorator, like the hero of Robert Tressell’s great socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which he gave Len on his 12th or 13th birthday.

After failing the 11-plus, but passing the “second chance” 13-plus, McCluskey went to the city’s Cardinal Godfrey School, where the headmaster was a “psychopath” who “used to run round with a cane which was almost as big as he was, just lashing out like Errol Flynn at people.” He learned to play chess—still a passion—and in the sixth form became a “proficient poker player.” He emerged with three A levels and was accepted at Aberystwyth University. But he was also offered three office jobs, one of which was at Liverpool docks. He became a ship’s planner, mapping where cargo was placed in the hold.

The dockyard was his union training ground. At 19, after leading a walkout of young workers demanding the adult rate, he became a shop steward in the white collar section of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. This was the late 1960s—“I had shoulder-length hair that me dad thought looked ridiculous.” He was becoming increasingly politicised: “I became very conscious of the Vietnam War, of the civil rights movement in America and Northern Ireland.”

McCluskey intended to join the Communist Party, but was put off by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Instead he joined Labour after hearing Tony Benn speak in 1970. Although he never actually joined the entryist Militant Tendency, he fell within its ambit and that of its controversial leading light, Derek Hatton. Appointed a district official at 28, McCluskey sought in the mid-80s to mobilise behind the Militant-dominated city council, and continued to wear a Militant badge when he became a national official in 1990—five years after Neil Kinnock instigated a purge. Hatton, now a businessman, is still a friend. “Spot on mate,” Hatton tweeted after McCluskey’s Durham outburst. “Watson is a pure rat.”

When McCluskey came down to London to work at the union’s headquarters, his then colleague Margaret Prosser recalled when we spoke, “he did deals for his members… He’s not daft by any means—a bit lazy, maybe. But he used the union as a political vehicle… Quite a pragmatic negotiator, but the whole thing was about the politics.”

In 2010, with the backing of his predecessor and old Liverpool ally Tony Woodley, McCluskey was chosen to be general secretary by the union’s highly organised left faction. His leadership started auspiciously with a win in a long-running dispute with BA, in which he had already been involved.

*** For students of chaos theory, the Labour MP Eric Joyce’s headbutting of other drinkers in a Commons bar on a February evening in 2012 is a classic of the genre, triggering a chain of events which has reverberated ever since. Joyce resigned, and the Unite-backed candidate for his Falkirk seat was Karie Murphy. Then came a furious row over claims that Murphy’s backers had “recruited” new party members without their knowledge. Murphy herself was forced to pull out.

Bizarrely, the affair also led to an industrial dispute at the local Grangemouth oil refinery in support of Stevie Deans, a fixture in both Unite and the Falkirk Labour Party. Ineos, the company which owns Grangemouth, charged Deans with using company time and facilities to promote Murphy’s candidacy. A strike was threatened, but was soon overtaken by a management lock-out, and McCluskey eventually travelled to Grangemouth to announce that the union would accept Ineos’s terms. It wasn’t easy. He told me: “It was all going off up there… I wanted to go and take the defeat.”

Grangemouth showed that McCluskey was no “fight to the death” Arthur Scargill, but capable of pragmatism: Deans resigned and Unite took a hit, but the plant was saved. Looking on, Scargill himself was unimpressed: McCluskey recalled him saying “we should have occupied the factories and God knows what.”

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There was another, more enduring, consequence from the Falkirk imbroglio too. Labour’s then leader, Ed Miliband, moved to instigate sweeping party reforms aimed at diluting union influence. These included an end to the electoral college for leadership elections, which had reserved a third of votes for the unions. Instead, the final say would be with party members and a new union category of “affiliated supporters.” But McCluskey shrewdly saw advantage in the changes: given that the parliamentary party would now only be able to nominate rather than elect leaders, Unite could still have a huge sway in leadership votes.

After Miliband stood down in 2015, McCluskey the fixer had initially thought of Andy Burnham as successor—a former New Labour figure who was shifting with the wind towards the social democratic left. But then Burnham spurned union funding, and Corbyn was nominated with the support of the Unite executive committee. McCluskey finally weighed in on Corbyn’s side, offering cash, personnel and office space. Unite also organised phone banks, which signed up new affiliated supporters, over 71,000 of whom voted in the election. Corbyn’s election was momentous—and McCluskey had helped make it happen.

McCluskey’s breach with Watson—they were once even flatmates—dates from the most dangerous moment in Corbyn’s leadership: the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum the following year. As a host of shadow cabinet ministers pointed the finger at Corbyn, accusing him of half-hearted support for Remain, most of the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) backed a motion of no confidence in June 2016. Watson sought to mediate through McCluskey, who was backing Corbyn. But Watson eventually announced, to McCluskey’s chagrin, that he was breaking off negotiations.

With the financial and political help of Unite, Corbyn convincingly won the subsequent leadership election against the PLP’s challenger, Owen Smith. Corbyn’s position was consolidated, and cemented further when he exceeded expectations in the 2017 general election.

But the pragmatic side of McCluskey never went away. He suggested to me that while it had been an “outrage” to try to oust Corbyn after only one year, a compromise could have been possible. There was a “real possibility of saying ‘let’s pick a date when we can then re-gather and look at the opinion polls.’” The conspirators would have been “much better trying to cut a deal with me than what ultimately happened. It just solidified [Corbyn’s] position for ever more.” On Watson, he said: “I’m sad. I miss that friendship, but things happen in life, don’t they?”

It says something about McCluskey’s power that few senior Labour figures will criticise him on the record. According to one former TGWU colleague, McCluskey “has lots of charm. More than that, he’s great on a night out—a real laugh. But under pressure he can be difficult. He gets angry.” Another union leader who worked with him says: “He’s intelligent and he can be charming, warm and personable, but he can also be an aggressive bully. He’s Jekyll and Hyde.”

During McCluskey’s 2017 campaign for re-election as Unite leader, Mr Hyde seemed to be in charge. On a low turnout, he saw off his rival, the union’s Midlands regional secretary, Gerard Coyne—a more centrist Labour Party man—by just a few thousand votes. Coyne made several official complaints about the running of the election. All were rejected by the assistant certification officer, Jeffrey Burke QC, who none the less accepted that the contest was not “a level playing field,” with McCluskey enjoying “enormous” advantages. After the ballot closed, Coyne was suspended, then sacked, after 29 years’ service. Others discerned an unpleasant sectarianism when McCluskey dimissed complaints of anti-semitism as “mood music.”

But when I met him over the summer he admitted he regretted that phrase—“I wouldn’t use that terminology again”—and it was a 69-year-old Dr Jekyll on display. On the coffee table was one of two chess sets he keeps in the office, the pieces seemingly in mid-game. McCluskey chatted about poetry and how he had recently re-read Shelley’s “masterpiece” “The Mask of Anarchy,” written after the Peterloo massacre.

*** So what about Brexit? Is McCluskey leading a rearguard Lexit faction? He claims to have put £250,000 of Unite’s money into the 2016 Remain campaign. And he’s still emphatically opposed to the “no-deal” Brexit now threatened by Boris Johnson.

But since the referendum McCluskey has firmly believed that Britain should leave the EU, and it’s apparent there has always been a certain dash of Euroscepticism. In 2014 he persuaded Unite’s policy conference to match David Cameron’s offer of an EU referendum—which Ed Miliband resisted. One shadow minister points to hard-left “voices in [McCluskey]’s ear” who have long seen Europe as a “bosses’ club” and who welcomed the vote to leave as a “working-class revolt against the capitalist establishment.” Nostalgia for Britain’s pre-common market economy, and McCluskey’s sense of himself as a tribune of older, “traditional” working-class people, many of whom voted Leave, may also have a bearing.

And it’s hard to believe that underlying personal views have not coloured McCluskey’s thinking, because his position is not obviously explained by the economic interests of Unite members. McCluskey brushes off claims, some from within his union, that Brexit is a factor in threatened closures like those at Ford Bridgend, Honda Swindon and British Steel in Scunthorpe. He also dismisses a People’s Vote-commissioned poll suggesting his members are 57-34 per cent in favour of a new referendum—though he does accept Unite includes Remainers and Leavers.

Earlier this year, McCluskey was seriously keen to see a Labour-Tory deal on Brexit, another sign he can be a fixer as well as a fighter. He enjoyed a remarkably cordial relationship with Greg Clark, business secretary until the Johnson reshuffle in July. “I have a huge respect for Len,” Clark told me. “Our political views are very different, but I’ve always found him to be a highly intelligent and shrewd man when it comes to understanding particular situations. And I’ve had no difficulty whatsoever working very closely with him in what has been a completely joint endeavour in securing jobs.” The pair met with Peugeot CEO Carlos Tavares to save van production at Vauxhall’s Luton plant. “That investment would not have happened without the government acting and without Len acting,” Clark said.

The regard is mutual. Clark is “a decent man, a nice man,” McCluskey told me. “It’s a terrible shame that he had to step down now. We did a lot of good work together.” As for Brexit, “I’m sure if all parties had agreed for Greg and I to go away into a room somewhere, we could have come out with an agreement.”

Both Clark and McCluskey would have preferred a formal Corbyn-May agreement, but there was—and conceivably could still be—another possibility. Namely, that enough Leave-inclined Labour MPs would vote for a deal for it to pass. More Labour MPs might have voted for it last time around if it looked like it might pass, but—says McCluskey, sounding very well informed—“they weren’t going to break the whip for no reason.”

Would Unite have offered them protection—for example, in the looming reselection ballots—if they backed the deal? Even after acknowledging that many Labour leaver MPs are on the right of the party and part company with him on Corbyn, McCluskey conceded to me: “Yeah, I would have made my views known to our members within that constituency. I would have been prepared to publicly say, ‘well, hang on, if this is why you’re attacking this MP, then in my opinion you’re wrong.’”

And what now? If Johnson secured a revised deal, might not pro-Brexit Labour MPs back it? “If that happened, I think you’re right. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.” McCluskey doesn’t think Johnson is bluffing about pursuing no deal. He also suggested to me that some Labour MPs might shrink from backing a no-confidence vote.

How about an even more fraught question, that of a second referendum? Both Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have now made clear not only their support for a fresh public vote, but that they would campaign for Remain. McCluskey argues instead that Labour should commit to negotiating its own Brexit deal. “I believe Labour has to step forward and say we speak on behalf of the nation; [that] we have to respect the democratic results that took place in 2016, but… will negotiate a deal that will satisfy the 48 per cent.”

He insists that since 55 of the 75 marginals that Labour needs to win backed Leave, an “out-and-out Remain” position won’t work. This is in stark contrast to Tom Watson’s analysis—based on the party’s drubbing in May’s European elections—that the only way to regain ground from the Lib Dems and the Greens is to come out for Remain.

All of which points to an all-out confrontation when Labour embarks on its manifesto-making process. A senior figure on the Remain side warned: “The first week of the election could be dominated by an almighty row within Labour. It could split the party.”

Whether McCluskey can resist the clamour for Labour to embrace Remain is related to a deeper question—whether, as one senior left-winger puts it,“he who pays the piper calls the tune.” For himself, McCluskey rejects “the power behind the throne” label. But while he repeatedly described Corbyn as a “strong leader,” he also cheerfully conceded to me that “if you’re saying that without Unite or without me, Jeremy would have gone under, then I think that’s probably true.” He went on: “If I didn’t have an influence then my executive, my members, would be saying, ‘what game are you playing?’”

*** What will McCluskey’s legacy be? He is proud of having stabilised Unite’s finances. In 2017, income outstripped expenditure by £123m, and he boasted that Unite—as the “most militant union in the country”—provides “the highest strike pay in the whole of Europe.”

That surplus has enabled prestige projects—like investing in a £20m-plus hotel and conference/education centre being built in Birmingham by the Flanagan Group, run by McCluskey’s Liverpool friend Paul Flanagan. His critics would like to see more resources used for a membership drive among, for example, the growing army of low-paid agency workers and staff on zero-hours contracts. There have also been calls for Unite to recruit more women, who make up only 25 per cent of its membership.

Yet it’s hard to shake off the feeling that McCluskey’s heart remains in the old, shrinking industries that dominated 20th-century trade unionism. The man himself doesn’t agree: “Those on the right fail to understand that in the major sectors of the economy, trade union density is quite high—50, 60, 70, 80 per cent. Look at the railways—100 per cent.” McCluskey said that he is well aware of the “outrageous” conditions in the gig economy. Indeed, Unite has campaigned against the infamous employment practices of Sports Direct. But he argues that only politics can solve the problem. “Labour, Corbyn, is the only solution because it deals with giving people employment rights and a proper wage. Zero-hours contracts—another thing Corbyn will do away with.”

If he wins a general election. McCluskey predicts Corbyn will win, but only by enough to form a minority government—hardly a secure basis for a social transformation. In a very different—but equally volatile—era, union giant Ernest Bevin ended the Labour leadership of the left-wing pacifist George Lansbury in favour of Clement Attlee with a single, crushing speech at the 1935 party conference. McCluskey has done the opposite—staking everything on the most left-wing leader since Lansbury, a man who has been wilfully ambivalent on the central issue of the times. For his union, society’s most vulnerable, and the country at large, the gamble could hardly be more perilous.