At first sight, it is irresistibly tempting to compare Len McCluskey’s background with that of an undisputed giant of 20th-century trade unionism: Jack Jones. Both were born and bred in Liverpool, worked in the city’s docks, and both began their union careers as shop stewards, in the old Transport and General Workers’ Union, which Jones went on to lead, and is now part of Unite, of which McCluskey is general secretary. And both were devotees of the house painter Robert Tressell’s great novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which inspired generations of socialists.
McCluskey, now locked in what has turned from a dispute over the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk to what many see as a power struggle for the soul of the party of which his union is a major paymaster, may well also reflect that his predecessor was hardly a stranger to conflict with the Labour leadership of his time. It was, after all, Jones who led the battle with Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union – now also swallowed up in Unite – against Barbara Castle’s plans for industrial relations reform in the Sixties, a battle that provoked Harold Wilson’s famous instruction to “get your tanks off my lawn”.
These echoes of the past are relevant not only because it sometimes looks as if McCluskey hankers after the days when much more towering men like Jones – once named as the second most powerful man in Britain in an opinion poll – held the fate of Labour governments in their hands. It’s also because Wednesday’s Commons onslaught by David Cameron suggests the Tories think that by conjuring the spectres, however mist enshrouded, of the unions’ historic domination of the party, they are on to an election winner.
The tanks are very different now. The union barons’ old ability to deploy the national strike weapon as they once did, for example, has long gone. The leverage Unite does have lies in the party’s dependence on it for funds – more than £8m since Ed Miliband became leader. McCluskey had not even been elected to run Unite when Ed Miliband won the party leadership. But as assistant general secretary, he was part of the collective leadership that not only supported the winner but also issued election material to its members – oddly, without any public protest by his brother and rival David – that included only the chosen candidate’s election pitch. But while psychologically his attitude may be reinforced by the role Unite played in the contest, that remains in the past. Present funding is another matter.
When a furious McCluskey issued his statement on Thursday accusing the party’s leadership of a “smear” over the union’s attempts to secure the Falkirk candidacy for his friend and ally Karie Murphy, there were no explicit threats. But back in September 2010, when he was still running for the Unite general secretaryship, he gave an illuminating account of his attitude to funding the party, telling the New Statesman that he was repeatedly “asked why we pay them so much money” and adding: “ I’m not for leaving the Labour Party, but I’m not going to continue the line of just handing over millions of pounds without it demonstrating it is changing.”
Twenty years older than Miliband, McCluskey was elected to his job a few weeks later and took over in January 2011. He was helped not only by being the left’s chosen candidate but also because he was from the old TGWU which – a sign of the changing union demographic amid falling union numbers – tended to dominate because it had a stronger base in the increasingly dominant public sector membership. He quickly cemented his popularity by securing a settlement of a long-standing dispute involving BA cabin crews. He was partly helped by the arrival of a new BA CEO Keith Williams, who wanted to make a fresh start. But he was able to present the settlement as something of a victory.
“His temperament is rather erratic,” says an experienced union official who knows McCluskey well. “He can be very personable, charming and, yes, intelligent at times. But he can also fly right off the handle.” A minor illustration, perhaps, was when during the 2010 inaugural leader’s speech of Ed Miliband, the man he had personally supported for the job, he at one point shouted “rubbish”, acknowledging to The Independent’s Andy McSmith a few months later that it was probably “inappropriate” but that “my emotions got the better of me because he made a statement about “irresponsible strikes’”.
He came of age in the late Sixties – when he had long hair and has admitted to “probably” smoking the odd illegal substance – but was also increasingly politicised as an activist in the strike-prone Liverpool docks. He was a full‑time official in Liverpool when the council was run by Militant – the ultra-left party within the party led by Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn before it was finally purged under Neil Kinnock’s leadership. He told the Liverpool Echo in 2009 that he was never a member but said: “I certainly supported Militant, and Derek and Tony were close friends.”
His chief of staff, Andrew Murray, was a long‑standing TGWU official who is a member of the Communist Party of Britain and indeed has maintained a notably hard line, untouched by the more liberal eurocommunist tendency, and was reportedly part of a group that unsuccessfully advocated alliance with George Galloway’s Respect. In an unbridled attack on David Miliband during the Labour leadership contest, he claimed that “Dick Cheney and John McCain have their candidate” in the “neoconservative” former foreign secretary.
On the other hand, says a former colleague who remains highly critical of McCluskey, there is no basis in the idea that Murray is “some Svengali figure who is pulling Len’s strings”. McCluskey, he says, has a strong enough personality to be his own man. According to one more moderate official involved in the BA dispute, moreover, Murray even played a “helpful” role during the negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement.
Not all the wrong is on one side. All parties including Labour need a more socially diverse spread of candidates. And McCluskey’s stance can be seen in part as a backlash against the previous era, in which Tony Blair chose almost to define himself against the unions, making clear his disdain for the kind of comradely – if often highly frictional – relations which had existed between unions and his predecessors, making it clear that, if anything, he preferred the company of businessmen, and doing little to schmooze even more moderate union leaders. Conversely, Ed Miliband may also be paying a price for not doing more to distance himself from Unite after its decisive endorsement had helped him to secure the leadership. Indeed, the promotion of Tom Watson, formerly an engineering union national officer and the man in whose office Ms Murphy worked as manager, was until his resignation this week itself – among other things – a major concession to the union.
But if McCluskey does reflect on past Labour history, he should recall that by the Seventies, Jack Jones, Spanish civil war veteran and Labour man through and through, had become a stalwart ally of the party leadership, greatly prolonging the life of the Wilson-Callaghan government by agreement with its economic policy. There is a crying need in the medium term for Labour to rethink political funding. But in the meantime, it’s difficult to see a solution to the present crisis which does not involve Len McCluskey taking his tanks off Ed Miliband’s lawn.
A Life In Brief
Born: 23 July 1950, Liverpool.
Family: In 1994 left his wife after 25 years to live with his mistress, Paula Lace.
Education: Cardinal Godfrey School, Anfield.
Career: He began work in the Mersey docks and joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1968, becoming a shop steward the following year. He joined the Labour Party in 1970. A campaign organiser throughout the 1980s, he was elected as the national secretary for the TGWU General Workers’ Group in 1990. Though a supporter of Militant in the 1980s, he was never a member. When the TGWU merged with Amicus in 2007 to become Unite, he was appointed assistant general secretary for industrial strategy. In 2010, he was elected as general secretary of Unite.
He says: “I have the same burning desire that I had as a young steward on the docks – and that’s to advance the cause of working people.”
They say: “Instead of defending what happened in Falkirk, Len McCluskey should be facing up to his responsibilities. He should not be defending the machine politics involving bad practice and malpractice.” Ed Miliband