Len McCluskey: Union man who wants to unite the nation against cuts

The Monday Interview: Len McCluskey wasted no time in heckling Labour's new leader – and has few qualms about standing up to the Coalition. Andy McSmith meets a fighter for social justice

Monday 04 April 2011 00:00

If the new boss of Britain's biggest union has his way, millions of workers will co-ordinate industrial action resembling the start of a general strike. So expect to see Len McCluskey in the news more often.

His union, Unite, has 1.4 million members and McCluskey is not certain that his desire for them to go out on co-ordinated industrial action is either practical or legal. This is not good news for Ed Miliband, who is indebted to Unite for helping him win the Labour leadership, but cannot afford to be seen as the strikers' and demonstrators' best friend.

Apart from any other differences between the Unite boss and the Labour leader, there is an age gap of some 20 years. At 61, McCluskey – a former long-haired docker from Liverpool – is a man with no political ambitions outside the union movement and, as a Liverpudlian of that age, he is someone who was caught up in the 1960s and becomes the first leader of a major UK trade union to admit he dabbled in illicit drugs.

But while Miliband needs Unite's money to keep Labour solvent, there is nothing he can offer in return that McCluskey needs. Relations got off to a sticky start when McCluskey gave out a loud shout of "Rubbish!" during Miliband's inaugural leader's speech.

"Yes, I did shout: 'Rubbish' and that was probably an inappropriate thing for me to do," said McCluskey, "but the reason that my emotions got the better of me is because he made a statement about 'irresponsible strikes'. I've never been involved in an irresponsible strike in my life. I've never known one. When working people take strike action, it's the last card. The idea he or his advisers think there is such a thing as an irresponsible strike is wrong.

"I think he'll come to realise that."

Referring to the outbreaks of violence at last weekend's large anti-cuts demonstration in London, McCluskey said: "I condemn that type of violence, but how can this happen? How can you have 4,500 police officers on duty – and this sophisticated intelligence network that we have – and a couple of hundred yobs dressed in black with masks over their faces are allowed to rampage? For a couple of hours they were allowed to roam free. I find that puzzling... I find it sinister that that type of thing was allowed to go on.

"You have seen the reason: the TV was dominated by the violence, as opposed to half a million decent British citizens protesting. The papers were full of these yobs causing damage, as opposed to debating what the protest was all about. So perhaps it achieved what they set out to do – or am I just being too Machiavellian in my thought process? It's either incompetence or sinister. Thirty years ago, the whole concept of agent provocateurs – as we are now finding out – it actually happened. I look at some of these who are committing the violence and they did it with impunity, not even furtively looking around to see whether anybody was going to nab them. It was as though it did not matter if they were arrested. It raises all kinds of questions." The issue of police infiltration of protest groups threatened to become a public scandal recently after the revelation that "Mark Stone", an eco-activist arrested for allegedly conspiring to occupy a power station, was actually a police officer who had been working undercover for seven years.

What McCluskey wants is radical, to say the least: the repeal of laws introduced by the Tory government 30 years ago and upheld by Tony Blair, which imposed immensely complex rules about when a strike can be called and which make it illegal for strikers to gather in mass pickets.

When, for instance, BA cabin crews repeatedly vote in favour of a strike and are repeatedly told by a judge that to strike would be illegal, the law is made to look as if its loaded against working people, he argues. He added: "If you look right the way through the legislation introduced in the 1980s, it was introduced in order to make trade unions less effective. I want to try to emphasise a forward-looking 21st century approach to fairness for trade unions. How is it possible that German, Italian, Spanish and French workers are better protected than British workers? How can it be right? It's palpably unfair. I suspect that if you asked the British public whether British workers and their trade unions should have the same kind of rights as German, French and Italian workers, there would be a huge majority that would say 'yes'."

Despite his appearance, McCluskey is a smarter operator than other left-wing union leaders who have preceded him. And he is not another Arthur Scargill, intent on exposing the Labour leader as a traitor to the movement.

"I personally supported Ed and my union voted for Ed," he said. "Relations with Ed Miliband are good and I look forward to helping him create the kind of party that will reconnect with ordinary working people and get him elected as the next PM."

McCluskey reflects on his younger days, revealing that in the 1970s, he was part of a group of devotees of the novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist who located the pauper's grave in Liverpool where its author, Robert Tressell, was buried.

As regards the sixties, he says: "I did have long hair." And did he smoke any illegal drugs?

"Yes. Probably at the time, yes."

Len McCluskey: a life in brief

* Left school in Anfield to work for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company

* Moved to London in 1979 and joined the Transport and General Workers' Union as their regional and political officer

* Appointed assistant general secretary of Unite in 2007. Nicknamed "Red Len" for his involvement in the BA dispute

* Elected Unite leader, November 2010

* He is married with three children

* A Liverpool FC supporter, his hobbies include poetry, chess and theatre

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