September 30, 2021

When he was 20 years old, Len McCluskey lied to get money. Having broken his arm playing football at the dock where he worked, he claimed he’d been injured on the job due to his employer’s negligence. This false account to the Medical Appeal Tribunal brought him £250 — about £4,000 in today’s terms.

51 years later McCluskey, now the leading trade unionist of the last decade, shows no regret as he reveals this scam in his memoir, Always Red (published to coincide with the annual conference of the Labour Party he helped to ruin). Indeed, he seems almost proud of getting away with it — his account mentions no comeuppance for the con. That’s fitting for a man whose career in politics and public life has been defined by two things: indifference to the consequences of his own actions, and the power of money.

Other people’s money, that is. Until recently, McCluskey headed Unite, and his liberal use of the union’s funds is a motif of this book. Even if you’re familiar with the grubby business of political party funding, there’s something startling about McCluskey’s lordly accounts of committing vast sums of his member’s money to whatever politician or campaign he’d chosen to favour. When Tom Watson spends the £50k Len handed him for a campaign, Len casually tosses him another £20k. When Alan Johnson calls about a donation to the Remain campaign, Len agrees £250k — the legal maximum — in one phone call.

The impression of McCluskey as a feudal lord, treating Unite as his fiefdom, grows with his account of using its resources to look after his own affairs. He criticises various adversaries for using expensive lawyers to fight their cause: when a challenger to the Unite throne seeks legal advice “from a top QC” it’s a sign of his “bottomless pockets” and “establishment” backing. Yet McCluskey recalls making repeated use of Unite’s in-house lawyers to threaten journalists who sought to report — accurately — his relationship with Karie Murphy, a close aide to Corbyn. If that relationship was a wholly private matter, why did the union spend members’ money concealing it?

All this is chickenfeed, of course, compared to the millions McCluskey spent propping up the man who would lead Labour to its worst defeat since 1935.

For a book over-heavy on meetings, deals and chatter among and about politicians, there’s no clear explanation of why McCluskey thought Jeremy Corbyn was right — or just right for Unite. He backs Corbyn because he’s not a “Blairite” or from the “Labour Right”, a group that seemingly includes Ed Miliband — whose leadership campaign he backed — and any other Labour figure who doesn’t agree with Len. Indeed, McCluskey’s primary aim here appears to be to insist that he was right about, well, everything, despite the dreadful consequences of his choices.

Tony Blair gave Labour 13 years in power in part by breaking the unions’ grip on the party — a political success for which many in the Labour movement will never forgive him. McCluskey, interested in power as well as money, appears to see the primary job of a union leader today as reversing those changes. His aim, he writes, was to give Unite more “influence” over Labour. That influence is an end in itself — how it might be used, in the interests of Unite’s fee-paying members, is never explained. All that matters is that Len has senior Labour people at his beck and call. At least Corbyn was consistent in his principles; McCluskey offers far less ideological clarity. His politics are those of the back-scratching backroom deal.

Inevitably, then, McCluskey’s memoir reveals some stark inconsistencies. He expresses interest in Blue Labour, and its regard for traditional “family and flag” values. But without pause, he showers praise and cash on Corbyn, whose internationalism, pacifism and sympathy for identity politics is diametrically opposed to those values. He privately supports Scottish independence in 2014 while funding the No campaign. He thinks EU membership is bad for British workers, but campaigns to Remain.

His post-2016 position — to my mind convincing — was that Labour should commit to accepting Brexit, dismissing a second referendum or other schemes to overturn the result. If his arguments had won out, Labour might not have lost quite so much ground with its traditional voters. Yet even Unite’s money can’t buy him enough influence to make that the party’s policy. He blames John McDonnell and Diane Abbott: “Corbyn now had his two closest friends in politics, one in each ear, telling him to move on the issue — and that’s what he did, committing to a second referendum in all circumstances.”

Not all Labour MPs backed Corbyn’s position, and McCluskey reports meeting members of the group who wanted to support Theresa May’s deal and “get Brexit done” long before the slogan was coined. They ask for Unite’s backing to go against party policy and deliver the Brexit McCluskey says he wants. But he refuses. Then he blames them for obeying the leadership. “They talked a good game but, whenever it came to the crunch, almost all of them fell into line with the whip,” he writes, failing to note that he funds and supports that very whip.

As a major player in the Corbyn project, McCluskey needs an excuse for its shattering failure in 2019 — and Brexit, rather than the infighting he’s implicated in, is it. In his account, Corbyn’s muddled position on leaving the EU was the sole reason for Labour’s collapse, especially in its working-class heartlands. To support this argument, McCluskey offers some second-hand anecdotes about Unite members’ dismay over Brexit, including some quotes that to my weary ear sound about as convincing as his testimony about his youthful broken arm. “At a meeting of the stewards I was told: ‘Jeremy is regarded as a traitor over Brexit’,” McCluskey recalls, conveniently.

He concludes with the bizarre claim that he and Unite were “vindicated” by the electoral catastrophe that he funded and “influenced”. Far from accepting any responsibility, he repeats a favoured Corbynite talking point about his man “winning the argument”, as if that makes up for reducing Labour to barely 200 Commons seats.

He also overlooks or cynically downplays the other major factors in that 2019 humiliation — most grievously anti-Semitism. “No evidence that antisemitism was more widespread in the Labour Party than in wider society has ever been produced. All the evidence that exists suggests the opposite,” he writes, dismissing the views of several Jewish Labour MPs, peers and members, and the Board of Jewish Deputies, and the Community Safety Trust, and the Jewish Chronicle. What, after all, do they know about anti-Semitism?

Also dismissed is the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which found that Labour, under Corbyn, had been “responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination”. Far more important to McCluskey is that accusations of institutional bigotry “demoralised” Corbyn and — worse — “devastated” poor Len himself. Will no-one think of the real victims here?

Besides, even if Labour was a little bigoted, voters didn’t care, in McCluskey’s telling. “I don’t believe antisemitism,” he writes, “was much of an issue on the doorsteps of Darlington or Doncaster in the 2019 general election.” Perhaps McCluskey, devoid of principles in politics, finds it hard to believe others might have them. Or perhaps this is just part of his wider habit of claiming the support of whoever he likes for whatever position he likes.

McCluskey has a habit of grandiosely speaking for the “ordinary workers” of Britain, the idealised grafters he allegedly represents. Despite a six-figure salary and a life spent in London offices and upmarket restaurants (as an aside in the book, he says he’s partial to Black and Blue in Borough Market, where a ribeye steak is £31), McCluskey insists that he retains a gut understanding of the workers, who, naturally, agree with him in all things.

But, strangely for a book by a union leader, Always Red pays little attention to trade unions and their members, at least in contemporary Britain. There’s lots of rose-tinted memories of earlier decades, and too many dull stories about the backroom politicking that saw McCluskey reach the top of the movement. But precious little about where unions stand now, and what their future might be.

McCluskey led Unite for a decade, until this year. He proudly reports that under his leadership, its funds grew tenfold to almost £500 million, “more than all the other British unions combined”.  For him, financial clout is all — and apparently more important than the number of people who actually support him and his union. He fails to mention some other numbers. In 2007, when Unite was formed by merging Amicus and the TGWU, it had 2 million members. Its most recent official filing shows it now has just 1.1 million members paying into its general fund.

That’s in keeping with overall union membership, which remains in long-term decline. Today barely 13% of private sector workers are union members. Perhaps the most stunning figure on the unions’ decline is that members are now more likely to be university graduates (28%) than to have no qualifications (17%). Education is the dividing line of our age, and trade unions speak for those at the top, not the bottom.

Why have those workers least able to bargain for higher wages turned away from the Labour movement?  Could that trend be stopped or reversed? Union sympathisers like to explain the decline by pointing to legislation and the growing power of big employers, which makes “exploitation” easier. But if that’s the case, why haven’t supposedly exploited workers become more inclined to seek the unions’ protection? McCluskey offers a few cursory paragraphs about automation and technology, and a lot of blaming Thatcher and the Right-wing media — but makes no real attempt to answer such questions. He’s more interested in himself.

And money, of course. He’s not the only one. Could it be that the unions, in search of members with solid and reliable wages to pay membership dues, have been more interested in representing public sector workers? Almost 52% are now union members. And the public sector now has twice as many high-skilled roles than the private sector, since many jobs — teachers, nurses, the police — now require a degree.

No doubt those workers need representation, in the workplace and Parliament. But a labour movement that focuses on relatively secure and affluent state employees, while neglecting those in more precarious positions, is a movement that has lost its way. The “Blairites” share some blame for that, but it’s been more than a decade since Ed Miliband disowned Blair’s “naive” faith in markets — and 14 years since the man himself left office. 2019 was the nadir of the modern Labour movement, and that’s the responsibility of those who led it at the time.

It was Corbynism that turned Labour into the party of the middle class. But he was aided and abetted by the man who was being paid to speak for British workers — who instead spent millions of pounds of their money trying to buy himself influence over a political project that repelled them. And McCluskey is about as sorry for it as for lying about that broken arm.