“People power can change the world”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s biggest union, has no time for defeat

I meet Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain's biggest union, Unite, on a rare sunny afternoon in August. In his airy, top-floor office at the Unite headquarters in central London, the coffee table is littered with oversized books on Nelson Mandela, the Second World War and the Spanish Civil War. In the corner is a bust of Ernest Bevin, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union - one of the precursors to Unite - who served as foreign secretary in the post-war Labour government.

McCluskey, a former dock worker from Liverpool who became a trade union member aged 18 and a shop steward aged 19, was elected as Unite's general secretary in November 2010. Often mocked by his critics as "Red Len", he admits his politics are "on the left, unashamedly" and describes Tony Benn as his "great political hero". It would be a mistake, however, to caricature him as an "extremist" or "another Arthur Scargill". Since his election, McCluskey has emerged as a formidable figure in the British trade union movement: shrewd, determined and keen to play an influential role in mainstream - and, especially, Labour - politics.

I begin by asking him about the TUC anti-cuts rally in March of this year. It was a huge success, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting on the streets of the capital - and the Labour leader Ed Miliband making an appearance too. But what comes next? What's the plan? "Obviously the TUC-led march on 26 March was part of the strategy, basically, to try and raise the consciousness and the confidence of not only trade union members but the rest of working people; to explode some of the myths; and to try and create a kind of movement that makes the government listen, that makes the government change its position. That's what the strategy is."

But does he really believe that the ­coalition will perform a U-turn on deficit ­reduction? "There are those cynics who would say: 'That's a load of rubbish. You'll never change the government's mind.' That kind of defeatism is something I reject." For McCluskey, "the history of our movement and indeed the history of the world shows that when people come together then people power can change things".

So what sort of "people power" can we expect in the coming months? Negotiations between the coalition and the TUC over reforms to public sector pensions seem to have reached a standstill.

McCluskey agrees. "At the moment they're not producing any great optimism and that leads me to feel that industrial ­action is almost inevitable as we move into the autumn and the winter," he says. Is he suggesting there will be more coordinated action by the big unions come October and November? "I think there's a likelihood that unions will be moving towards a day of protest." He qualifies himself: "Understandably, some unions are angrier than others." Where is his union on the anger index? "Well, we're pretty angry," he laughs. "So it's about trying to manage the different levels of anger and expectancy amongst our ­members."

Does he think the recent riots were an angry reaction to the coalition's austerity measures? It is a provocative argument that has been made by, among others, Labour's mayoral candidate, Ken Livingstone. Despite the "Red Len" reputation, McCluskey is more circumspect, describing it is "a really difficult question". He says he condemns "the type of violence that we've seen against ordinary, decent working men and women, who have a right to be protected".

So the cuts weren't the cause? "I think it's deeper than that," he says. "The really frightening thing is that the real cuts in the community haven't hit that deep yet, and so we may well be looking at worse violence next summer, when the cuts do start to dig in deep."

For McCluskey, there is "a disconnect between large sections of our young people, especially in cities, and the rest of society and with those people who govern our society. I don't put that down just to the Conservative-led government; I put that down to authority in general. And we need to do something about that, we need to try to reconnect again."

Thirty years ago, the Unite leader was a regional and political officer in Liverpool, when the Toxteth riots erupted in 1981. "We realised as a union that our links with the [black] community that was on our doorstep were virtually nil," he recalls. "And so we engaged, after the riots, to try and make contact, to try and give people a voice." McCluskey tells me that Unite is about to launch, at the forthcoming TUC conference, a new community membership scheme.

Through it, individuals who are not in work - both young and old - will be given the opportunity to join Unite for 50p a week, receive the benefits of union membership and play a role within the union. "It's our way of trying to bring about a fusion between the role that we play representing workers in work and the communities in which they live."

Thousands of people have been marching in Derby over the summer in support of train maker Bombardier. The firm is being forced to slash almost half of its 3,000-strong workforce after missing out on a £1.4bn Thameslink contract. Can Unite, which represents Bombardier workers, persuade ministers to change their minds? McCluskey says that "even the government can see that they may well have shot themselves in the foot here - one minute taking about how they want to revive British manufacturing and have things designed and made in Britain and then, lo and behold, making this decision [on Bombardier], which everybody now thinks is a crazy decision."

But, I point out, Canadian-owned Bombardier, which lost out to German group Siemens as the preferred bidder, ­isn't British. So why take sides between Bombardier and Siemens? "You're right, Bombardier isn't British," he admits, before adding: "This is about manufacturing trains. Siemens, having won that contract, will manufacture those trains elsewhere, and the reality is that [Bombardier] is the last manufacturing company that makes trains in Britain. So this was a great opportunity for the government - it still is if they can be big enough to take a step back."

Bending the rules

The government, however, has said in its own defence that the deal was awarded in accordance with EU rules. Is it time that traditionally pro-European trade unions started standing up to the European Union and, in particular, its procurement rules? "Yes, absolutely, it's time to look at those EU laws and I'm pleased to see Ed Miliband and Ed Balls taking a more Eurosceptic approach," he says. "But I would say this: it is sometimes easy to hide behind EU rules but Germany and France have no difficulty with them. In France, 100 per cent of the trains are made in France. 98 per cent of German trains are made in Germany. Rules are there to be bent and got around."

Does he believe, as some on the left have argued, that the coalition is engaged in class war, on behalf of the rich, against the poor? Or is austerity just a by-product of a well-entrenched but misguided economic ideology?

“I think it's a bit of both," he replies. "I think what we've got to remember is that Cameron, Osborne and all the rest of them are children of the Thatcher era and they have accepted, without question, the concept of neoliberalism. And so it's easy to understand how Cameron and Osborne are locked into that and [how] they actually haven't got an alternative. . . They are genuinely at a loss to what plan B is."

Referring to the cabinet of "millionaires", he continues: "The world of the ­inner-city streets and the riots, the world of the sink estates, the world of poor people who are struggling to make ends meet . . . it is a different world from the world they live in. It's a world that these people never come across. So I think, on the one hand, it's not that they are evil people who are intent on making the gap between the haves and the have-nots bigger. It's because of the economic orthodoxy that they've been brought up with.

“But, on the other hand, they undoubtedly represent the corporate elite, and the ruling elite - that's where their [funding] comes from, that's who they're influenced by and, therefore, for them to start moving to a plan B is going to be difficult for them to do."

So does he sense an opportunity here for Ed Miliband and the opposition? "It is a huge opportunity for Ed Miliband," says McCluskey. "If [Ed's] courageous enough to grasp it, if he puts forward a radical enough alternative, then he'll end up Prime Minister."

Victory for Ed

The Unite leader then draws an interesting parallel between the Labour leader and Margaret Thatcher. "When she came to power she was not particularly liked by the hierarchy in the Tory party, she was ridiculed a little bit by the press, she was certainly attacked and ridiculed by the Labour government - exactly what Ed's gone through. People said she'll never make it, she's not articulate, she's got no dynamism, she's got no charisma - all of what's being levelled at Ed. What she had, of course, was a radical alternative, one that was an anathema to me, but nevertheless one that caught a pulse - and that's what Ed needs to [have]."

Unite backed Ed Miliband in last summer's Labour leadership contest. Most observers believe that the endorsement from Britain's biggest union was decisive in delivering victory to the younger of the two Miliband brothers.

I remind McCluskey that he then heckled Ed Miliband during the Labour leader's post-victory conference speech in Manchester in September 2010 (he cried out "Rubbish" in response to Miliband's condemnation of "waves of irresponsible strikes"). McCluskey smiles. "I spoke to him about that," he says. "It was inappropriate for me to do that, it's just that I got caught up with the emotion of it all." Did he apologise to Miliband?

“I did, but not at the conference. I wrote a letter to him . . . But I then explained to him that he'd been ill-advised to use the terminology of 'irresponsible strikes', because there's no such a thing as an irresponsible strike."

What, then, was his reaction to the Labour leader's bizarre, robot-like interview in response to the one-day strike by teachers and public sector workers over pay and pensions at the end of June, in which he repeated a formula beginning "these strikes are wrong. . ." over and over again? It was simple: "Very disappointed." McCluskey says Miliband missed an "open goal" to attack a heavy-handed government that provoked the strikes. "I hope he doesn't do it again," he says sternly, adding: "I recognise that he's got a number of constituents to play to, and while therefore it may be difficult for him to come out in support of strikes, he should nevertheless understand and develop a narrative along the lines that workers only ever take strike action when they feel they've got no alternative, when their sense of grievance is so deep."

Does he think the Labour leader will come out in support of the industrial action which he says is "almost inevitable"? He shrugs. "Ed has to make that judgement. He has to do that himself. I can't tell him - I'm a generation older than him." (McCluskey is 61; Miliband is 41).

It was the former TUC general secretary, John Monks, who used to complain about the Labour Party treating the unions as "embarrassing elderly relatives". Has that attitude changed under Miliband's leadership? "I think it has changed," says McCluskey. "I don't think that Ed sees us as an embarrassment. He started his leadership by saying that he wanted to reconnect with people, he wanted a blank sheet of paper to debate and discuss things - I thought that was brave of him. He said things in [his conference] speech that I haven't heard a Labour leader say for a generation or more. So that process of debate and discussion is taking place and he's listening to what we're saying." Does he have any buyer's remorse? "No," he says with a firm shake of his head.

Punching their weight

Unite remains the largest single donor to the Labour Party. The latest party funding figures, released in late August, revealed that McCluskey's union was responsible for a quarter of all donations to Her Majesty's Opposition. The general secretary tells me he is constantly asked by members why the union continues to pay the Labour Party so much money. What does he tell them? "One of the basic objectives of Unite is to punch its weight in the political arena - to have a voice in the political arena," says McCluskey. "Now we have an opportunity in the dialogue and the discussions we're having with Ed to have that voice. Whether that voice materialises, time will tell."

He issues this warning, however, to the Labour leadership: "The days of blank cheques to Labour are long gone. Under my leadership, the use of donations to the party will be a lot tighter than under my two predecessors."

Then there is the issue of party reform and the Refounding Labour project ­(outlined by Peter Hain on page four). There have been reports in the press that the Labour leadership wants to weaken the unions' power inside the party. ­McCluskey says he will "resist" any moves to do so without debate or ­discussion. "What I think is happening at the moment is that the leadership of the Labour Party has got itself into a position where in order to pacify the voracious ­animal that is the right wing press, or the undead Blairites, it is having this virility contest with the trade unions. I wish it wouldn't do that - I wish Ed wouldn't do that."

He adds: "I'm comfortable with the fact that Peter Hain wants to revitalise the Labour Party at grass roots level - that's what I'm trying to do at my union." But, he says, he told Hain at the start of the process that "the problem with this 'refounding' of Labour is that all the good, inventive and new issues that you might want to implement will all only be judged on whether or not you reduce the trade union influence in either the leadership election or the party conference. And that's how it's panned out."

So how bad does he think it will be for the union movement? "I think there's ways that we can achieve it without it causing a problem, and without necessarily being seen as though the unions have suddenly had their knuckles rapped," says McCluskey, before adding mischievously: "In terms of the leadership, we could, for example, have one member, one vote, for our members." He smiles. Such a move would, of course, give the unions an even bigger voice in leadership elections.

I look around his plush office, with the large desk in the corner and the plasma television and can't help but ask the question: are union bosses paid too much? "No," is McCluskey's reply. How much is he paid? He pauses and looks over to his press officer, seated nearby. "£97,000, is it?" I tell him that Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, told me in an interview in June that trade union general secretaries were paid too much.

McCluskey doesn't budge. "I accept that Mark has his particular view on it but I think it's an irrelevance," he says. "It never gets raised internally in my union or by our activists. My pay is determined by our executive, which is a lay member body. If my executive decided that I should take a 20 per cent cut tomorrow, then I'd accept that. That's their call."

In Len McCluskey, David Cameron and George Osborne face a combative opponent. His Unite union will be at the forefront of the battle against the cuts this autumn. And, for McCluskey, it is "no coincidence that the government and the CBI are talking about restricting trade unions even more. Because they realise today what Thatcher realised in the 1980s: that in order to get her programme through she had to try and emasculate the only organisations that could oppose her - the trade unions."

The Unite leader says we are witnessing the same tactic today, as people recognise that the only institutions that can stop the government's cuts or challenge its ideology are the trade unions. "We're still by far the largest voluntary organisation in our society," points out McCluskey. "And that's partly why I want to reconnect with my community membership, so that we can speak with a stronger voice."

Trade union membership, however, has been on the decline for the past three decades - are unions themselves still relevant? "In today's economic climate," McCluskey says, the need for trade unions "is now more acute than ever. Who else is speaking on behalf of millions of people out there who frankly disagree with what's happening, and yet don't have a voice? It is only the trade unions."

Mehdi Hasan is the senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman