I am in Len McCluskey’s office to discuss austerity, strikes and the future of the Labour Party, but the Unite general secretary is preoccupied with the impending fate of the footballer Luis Suárez. “He didn’t do much, he only nipped the fella on the arm,” quips the lifelong Liverpool fan in reference to Suárez’s now notorious encounter with the Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic. McCluskey, a man similarly fond of sinking his teeth into his opponents, is in an ebullient mood after winning re-election this month as head of Unite. It is Britain’s biggest trade union and Labour’s largest donor, accounting for 28 per cent of all donations to the party last year. When first elected in 2010 at the age of 60, he planned only to serve a single five-year term but was persuaded to stand again after the government scrapped the default retirement age of 65. Having brought forward the date of the contest to avoid a clash with the 2015 general election (“I don’t think that would have been good for the Labour Party or Unite,” he tells me), McCluskey will now remain general secretary until at least 2018.
“The message is crystal clear to our members, first, that I’m not going to leave the battlefield in these difficult times, I’m going to stand shoulder to shoulder with them,” he says. “It sends a message to the government that I’m going to be here and hound them from here to the general election. It also sends a message out to the Labour leaders that I’m going to be here up to and beyond the next election, so any promises and any issues that we’re seeking from them will be implemented if they get into power.”
The general council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is preparing to discuss the possibility of staging a general strike, in what would be the first mass walkout since 1926, but McCluskey plays down the prospect of imminent industrial action. “I very much doubt the TUC will name a day because I think it’s true that the majority of unions are not in favour of such a call,” he says. “But some unions, including Unite, might go away and talk among themselves about whether there is anything else they might wish to do, over and above the collective decision of the TUC.”
The hint of further action has already prompted Boris Johnson to call for David Cameron to show “Thatcherite zeal” and introduce a new law banning strikes from taking place unless they are backed by at least 50 per cent of those entitled to vote. McCluskey gives short shrift to this proposal. “It’s slightly hypocritical, because on that basis Boris Johnson wouldn’t have been elected Mayor of London; only 38 per cent of Londoners took part,” he points out. “It amuses me on the one hand and angers me on the other, the hypocrisy of Tory leaders. Here we are, at a time of enormous crisis within the economy and all they want to do is attack workers’ rights.”
Unite was formed in 2007 through the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and some have suggested it could now absorb the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), led by the radical Mark Serwotka. The prospect of Unite combining forces with a union that is not affiliated to Labour has troubled some in the party, who fear the reduction in funding that could result, but McCluskey refuses to rule out the possibility of a formal merger. “We will talk to any union,” he tells me, describing it as part of Unite’s “strategy for growth”. He adds: “If there are any senior members of the Labour Party who want to raise objections with me, I’d be more than happy to listen, but when you’re engaged in discussions about mergers then the individual personnel tends to be secondary, it’s what good for the union, it’s what’s good for the membership.”
McCluskey began his union career as a campaign organiser for the TGWU in Merseyside in the 1980s and was a supporter, though not a member, of Militant throughout the period. How did he respond to the death of the politician who defined that era – Margaret Thatcher? “My immediate thoughts, and this is true, were with the hundreds of thousands of lives that Thatcherism destroyed, the communities that were broken and many of the communities that have never been repaired. Did I mourn her death? No, I didn’t. Did I celebrate her death? Well, not particularly in terms of celebrating any individual’s demise. For me it crystallised, once again, the debate about her policies and I believe Thatcherism was an evil creed, it was the creed that made a god out of greed, greed was the god of Thatcherism.”
He describes the ceremonial funeral held for her as “distasteful in the extreme” and attacks the last Labour government for approving it in advance. “We’ve seen all the gushing eulogies from Tony Blair and, in a sense, that’s the impact of the woman,that she was able to get the Labour Party to respond in that way to her. But I thought it was wrong, it was inappropriate. She died and she should have been given a respectful burial by her family in the way that others did, everybody knew the divisiveness of this and yet were happy to play along with it.”
The contempt with which McCluskey utters the name “Blair” prompts me to ask him about the recent return of the former prime minister to the domestic fray and his warning in the New Statesman that Ed Miliband must not “tack left on tax and spending”. “My message to Ed is to take no notice of the siren voices from the boardrooms of JP Morgan or wherever else he is at the moment,” he tells me. Blair and the other New Labour grandees who have urged Miliband to pursue a centrist strategy are “locked in the past,” he says, describing them as “deniers of what happened in 2008”.
“It may be easy for these people, who are sitting with the huge sums of money that they’ve amassed now – they’ve done pretty well out of it. Remember it was Mandelson who said he was comfortable about the filthy rich – presumably that’s because he wanted to be one of the filthy rich. But the fact is that under Labour the gap between rich and poor increased . . . that’s a stain on what Labour stands for”.
In a sharp warning to Miliband, he predicts that Labour will lose the general election if it adopts a policy of “austerity-lite” and supports cuts in public spending. “We believe that Ed should try to create a radical alternative. My personal fear, and that of my union, is that if he goes to the electorate with an austerity-lite programme, then he will get defeated.” Drawing a comparison with Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign, he suggests that David Cameron’s call to “stick with me” will win over the voters if Labour fails to run on a distinctive anti-cuts and pro-investment platform.
It was Unite and the other two “big three” unions (Unison and the GMB) that delivered the crown to Ed Miliband after the party membership and the Parliamentary Labour Party voted in favour of his brother, David, and McCluskey praises the Labour leader for doing “a really good job” since his election in 2010. He fears, though, that Miliband could still fall under the sway of those he pejoratively refers to as “Blairites”. He singles out the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander and the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, for criticism.
“Ed Miliband must spend most of his waking hours grappling with what lies before him. If he is brave enough to go for something radical, he’ll be the next prime minister. If he gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.”
He adds that the Labour leader must go into the election “with a team that he’s confident in” and says of the shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, who has become something of a hate figure for the anti-austerity left, “Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy. I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be.”
While McCluskey denounces the nefarious hand of the Blairites, others in the party are troubled by what they regard as his union’s excessive influence, with a recent Times front page documenting claims that Unite has “stitched up” candidate selections for the European elections.
It is a charge McCluskey has little patience with. “The truth is that this is a process that was set up by Tony Blair, and the right-wing and organisations like Progress have had it their own way for years and years and have seen nothing wrong it.
“Because we’re having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.”
The phrase that McCluskey returns to repeatedly is that the Labour Party is “at a crossroads”. In a signal that Unite’s continued support should not be assumed, he warns that the unions “would have to sit down and consider their situation” if Labour fails to emerge as “the authentic voice of ordinary working people”.
“If he [Miliband] is daft enough to get sucked into the old Blairite ‘neoliberalism wasn’t too bad and we just need to tinker with it a little bit’ . . . then not only will he fail but I fear for the future of the Labour Party.”
The facade of unity that has held since Miliband’s election is beginning to crack as the right of the party warns that Labour faces defeat unless it commits to cuts after 2015, while the left insists that the reverse is true. After McCluskey’s intervention, the unenviable task facing the Labour leader will now be to chart a course between these two irreconcilables.