Pictures of ‘Red’ Len McCluskey were beamed large at the Conservative ‘Black and White’ pre-election fundraiser ball at the Grosvenor Hotel to frighten loose the money in the wallets of the party’s wealthy backers. McCluskey has also been attacked from the left with claims he is an enemy of the Labour Party. He is a figure who looms large in the day-to-day fray of British politics, as the leader of a union movement under siege by the government.
Len McCluskey is rare among modern trade union leaders. He is by far the best-known trade union leader in an era. Few people could name more than a handful of others. His views may not be universally popular and he has faced vicious media attacks on account of them. But he does not shirk from inserting his union and himself into the public debate there.
When he spoke to the anti-austerity protesters in Manchester outside the Conservative Party Conference last month, McCluskey made clear Labour’s General Election defeat would not mean Labour or the unions would retreat into their political shells. He said at the time, “If they thought on 7th May that we were going to disappear, well, think again, because we’re here to fight for everything that belongs to us.”
As General Secretary of Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union, Unite, with over 1.4 million members, McCluskey is undoubtedly one of the most important figures standing up for the rights of workers. He has led the Unite trade union since 2011 and has been actively involved in trade union and Labour Party politics since the 1970s, when he joined the party and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. His moniker of ‘Red’ Len supposedly comes from a caricature by the right-wing press because of his involvement in Unite’s dispute with British Airways.
On Monday, just the day before McCluskey spoke to Cherwell, he was in Parliament lobbying against the Trade Union bill, a piece of legislation introducing minimum participation thresholds in union strike ballots. It is a bill which will alter workers’ rights to strike, picket and protest, and strike a blow at the Labour Party by forcing union members to opt-in to contributing to political funds.
When I meet him, McCluskey is in Oxford to talk to the Oxford University Labour Club. He delivers a charismatic talk about the Trade Union Bill, the future of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the steel industry and the rightwing media. In the space-shuttle-like seminar room in Wadham College, he is attentive when answering questions from the audience, keen to address every hand raised and remembering each person’s name. McCluskey even helps give his stance on one audience member’s essay, and tells him to email him the final product.
The Unite General Secretary spends a significant amount of his talk discussing what he describes as the hope Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory has provided ordinary people. McCluskey feels that the “suffocating coat of conformist politics has now been lifted” from the Labour Party. He expresses his hope that the movement surrounding Corbyn is “not just a flash in the pan” and finishes his talk by half speaking, half singing a verse of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A Changin’” and articulating his faith in the younger generation whom he addresses.
Unlike some in the public eye he seems spindoctor-free. Nice suit, no tie (having removed it at the beginning of the talk), thick Liverpudlian accent and, for Daily Mail readers, no signs of horns on the head, claws or curly tail.
We begin by discussing the Trade Union Bill, currently going through the House of Commons, the aim of which McCluskey has said “is to emasculate our movement”. He has suggested Unite is prepared to defy the law in pursuit of workers’ rights.
“The Trade Union Bill is an incredibly important issue. The problem with it is that what the government is attempting to do is to turn Trade Unions into nothing but advisory bodies. We can advise our members but we cannot campaign with them, we cannot fight with them and we cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with them when they are in dispute. So we have taken the view that we are not prepared to abandon our members, but we are not looking for a fight with this government.
“In fact, the central issue of the Trade Union bill is, according to the Prime Minister, the question of thresholds. He is not happy with the low turnouts in industrial action ballots and neither am I. These low turnouts come about because we are restricted to postal ballots: we can only have postal ballots. The fact is the majority of our members mostly do not go home and look for a ballot paper and make their cross; they just don’t do it.
“So what we have said to the Prime Minister is give us secure independent workplace balloting. If you give us that then we haven’t got a problem with the fifty per cent threshold because we will always have way in excess of fifty per cent. We will have seventy to eighty per cent turnouts if he does that and I believe the Prime Minister is behind the eight ball at the moment because if he doesn’t agree with that and concede that to us, people will see that he is being disingenuous.
“This is really about stopping the right of workers to take strike action and unfortunately that will lead us to conflict with them, so I am doing everything to avoid the conflict and I am hoping that he will see common sense.”
He stresses the impact of this bill on working people’s lives. “It is undoubtedly an attack on civil liberties and the Trade Union movement. We can’t find anybody who is in favour of this bill: the Police Federation, the CIPD (the professional body for human resource management,) the Regulatory Policy Committee says it is unfit for purpose, Amnesty International, Liberty, all of the CEOs that I deal with in the major multinational manufacturing companies – not a single one of them is in favour of it. So it is undoubtedly an unfair attack on our civil liberties and I am hoping that sufficient people can bind together and say that we are not prepared to accept this.”
I ask him if he believes that Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, is doing enough for industry. You read it here first: McCluskey informs me he is due to meet Javid next Wednesday. He chuckles sarcastically at my question. “No, absolutely not. He took over from Vince Cable, and, whilst I believe there were huge deficiencies, he at least started to develop an industrial strategy. Sajid seems to have swept that to one side.
“It is very clear they are not doing enough for the steel industry and that is deeply, deeply regrettable. There are thousands of jobs which are going to go and thousands more that I predict will go if the government does not take a more strategic view and understand that steel is a foundation industry and we need it.
“We have said that they should bring forward a whole host of infrastructure policies that we are currently engaged in and we have currently budgeted for. Bring them forward and use British steel. We have just lost a government contract to Swedish steel which is just crazy, so he is not doing enough and we are urging them that if they genuinely want to be a government that is interested in manufacturing then they have to do more and they have to try to intervene and have a proper strategy for steel.”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, McCluskey approves of OUSU’s decision to fund the public transport costs for Oxford students to the march in London against student grant cuts on Wednesday this week. He is an advocate of student activism, explaining, “good luck to you because historically within Britain and indeed throughout the world, it has always been the students who have been prepared to get out on the streets and make a noise. We will be supporting you on that.”
Coupling these cuts to student grants, and cuts to tax credits, I ask him whether he is worried about society becoming increasingly indebted. Yes: he is very worried about increasing personal debt, and has an interesting and surprising take on tax credits.
“Currently, the so-called growth we have in the economy that the government boasts about, everybody knows that this is not sustainable. We have the biggest personal debt that we have ever had; I think it is something like 1.3 trillion pounds in personal debt. It is the very thing that bought about the collapse, the bursting of the bubble back in 2008 and lots of economists fear the same.
“There is no sustainability and this driving of personal debt is incredibly worrying. That is why we constantly urge the government to invest properly in our manufacturing base. Let’s start getting decent jobs, decent apprenticeships for young people with properly paid jobs at the end of it.
“Let’s increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour in a staged approach, at the same time reducing tax credits in a staged way so that nobody loses money. But eventually we end up in a situation where people are on decent wages because the minimum wage has gone up sufficiently and we are not subsidising profi table employers and major companies who make huge profits and yet pay their workers so low that the taxpayer pays them tax credits. We should do something about that and it should be done in a structured fashion so that individuals do not suffer.”
And what of the hotly debated question of what Labour needs to do to win the General Election of 2020? “It needs to do what it needed to do in 2015. It has got to demonstrate to ordinary people that it is on their side, that it is going to fight for them, that it is going to tackle inequality, that it is going to fight for secure, decent, well-paid jobs, that it is going to build affordable homes for rent and for purchase so that young people can start to live the dream of their parents.
“There is good education to be fought for, dignity in retirement, stopping our NHS from going into private hands more and more. That is what the Labour Party has to do: go back to its core values, because I believe those core values are the core values of ordinary British people. Whether they are living in Kent or whether they live in Liverpool or Leeds or Glasgow, people want fairness and Labour has to demonstrate that it not only believes in fairness but that it is serious about it and it is prepared to deliver.”
After our interview, McCluskey joins the members of OULC in the Kings Arms, having a pint with the very people he envisages as leading the struggle for workers’ rights in the future.