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28 November 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:28am

Len McCluskey’s exit could be just as significant as Jeremy Corbyn’s

By Patrick Maguire

Unite’s Len McCluskey has again suggested that Jeremy Corbyn should not immediately resign should Labour lose on 12 December, this time in an interview with HuffPost. Instead, McCluskey called for a “period of reflection” – the same form of words he used in a New Statesman interview last month. 

As the general secretary of Labour’s biggest union donor, McCluskey’s words carry considerable weight. Alongside the other union leaders, he will wield considerable influence in determining the nature and length of any leadership transition. 

We also know a great deal about his political sympathies: McCluskey is a close ally of Corbyn and has criticised Remainers in the shadow cabinet. As such, we can make an educated guess as to how he will interpret a bad result for Labour, particularly one that involves losses to the Conservatives in the north and midlands. He tells HuffPost’s Paul Waugh that those areas are Labour’s “Achilles heel”. 

But much more interesting than any of McCluskey’s reflections on the election was the evasive answer he gave when asked about his own future as Unite general secretary – a persistent source of speculation in Labour circles. In October, the union told the Daily Telegraph that suggestions that McCluskey was preparing to resign in the first few months of 2020 were “utter nonsense”. 

When asked whether he intended to serve a full term to 2022 yesterday, however, McCluskey told Waugh: “When the time comes for me to step aside my members and my executive will be the first to know… The reality is that all kinds of things come into play. There are a number of good left candidates, radical candidates, who will keep Unite in the position that we are, which is the biggest, the most influential, the strongest union.”

That the answer wasn’t a straightforward yes suggests that the Telegraph’s line of inquiry might not have been as absurd as Unite’s response suggested at the time. In giving it, McCluskey has thrown one of the great known unknowns of the next year – and, indeed, the next parliament – into sharp relief. 

How will the unions respond to the fallout from a Labour defeat, and who will be leading them once the dust has settled? The answer could determine the future direction of the party just as much as the identities of the successful candidates. If McCluskey does exit stage left sooner rather than later, then it will be rather more difficult to predict with any certainty what that answer will be.

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