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Calm Down: 'Trade Union Barons' Are Not Really Holding Britain to Ransom

The truth about Len McCluskey, the Labour leadership and screaming tabloid headlines.

Len McCluskey (Photo via Unite)

As the Labour Party works out who's going to be its next leader, there's a dark shadow hanging over it. The ultra-socialist leader of the Unite trade union, Len McCluskey, is apparently threatening to cut its ties with the party – denying it badly needed funds – if it doesn't elect a leader who makes Russell Brand look about as left-wing as Nigel Farage. At least, that's if you believe a bunch of misleading headlines from newspapers which are either trying to pull a fast one, or don't know what they're on about.


Monday's Express told us how the "union baron has threatened to ditch Labour for the SNP unless the party adheres to his left-wing agenda".

McCluskey is Labour's "most powerful reactionary voice", Andrew Gilligan noted in the Telegraph. "In Labour leadership matters, what Len McCluskey wants he tends to get. It was Unite votes, of course, and those of other trade unions, which made Ed Miliband the UK Labour leader, even though party members and MPs wanted someone else." The stepping down of Scottish Labour's Jim Murphy was apparently Len McCluskey's "latest triumph".

Never mind that at least three other unions and a whole bunch of MSPs and ex-MPs joined in calling for Murphy to go. And that Murphy was the only leader in recent history to attempt to cling on in spite of losing his own seat, having overseen Labour's near total collapse in Scotland. This was McCluskey's personal victory.

And now, apparently Red Len's up to no good again. In calling for the wider Labour party to choose the "correct" leader, McCluskey was deploying "language reminiscent of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union", opined New Statesman editor Jason Cowley in the Daily Mail. "It's as if the Unite hard man believes himself to be de facto leader of the Left in Britain – He Who Must Be Obeyed." And the scariest thing? In his own union, "he is considered to be something of a 'centrist'" and "he has his own left-wing faction to contend with". His chief of staff, Andrew Murray, is "a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain".


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So far, so scary. And surely we can forgive the factual errors and omissions: That the Communist Party of Great Britain was disbanded in 1991. And that Murray, as you'd expect with a chief of staff, is part of McCluskey's own faction in Unite, and not a rival heckling like an irate tube passenger for him to keep to the left. Or that this "baron" was elected leader of his organisation with 144,570 votes, compared to David Cameron's 134,446 Tory members. And that Len McCluskey wasn't even leader of Unite when Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader 2010.

If you ignore all those minor points, then the obvious fact that McCluskey is a crazed despot worse than Stalin holding the country hostage in his socialist revolution is clear as day. It wasn't just newspapers that were pushing this idea. The broadcasters were lapping it up, with the scrolling titles on the BBC News channel screaming "UNITE TO VOTE ON DISAFFILIATION FROM LABOUR" as if it were a bomb scare.

The fact is, LenMcCluskey is not holding the Labour Party to ransom, or saying that he will make Unite leave it if they refuse to pick a leader more like Hugo Chavez. Technically, the union could break its historic link with the Labour Party, and take with it a huge chunk of Labour's funding. But in reality, he merely acknowledged that hypothetical possibility, and the fact that a small number of his members would like that to happen. "We have no plans to disaffiliate from Labour," he soon clarified.


Calls for Unite to quit Labour came via conference motions from lay activists in the far-flung reaches of Scotland – motions which would have to be voted on by Unite members and which will be opposed by the union's executive, and by McCluskey himself.

Spinning a story about a crazed demagogue is one thing – I guess it is less dry than conference motions. But the weird thing is that Unite's potential but unlikely disaffiliation was news at all, just because McCluskey happened to mention it in passing during a broadcast interview.

I'd known for months that it was on the cards – as had pretty much anyone who keeps tabs on the trade union movement. However, that's a diminishing number of people. Not too long ago, every newspaper had a team of industrial and labour correspondents to cover trade unions and workplace disputes in much the same spirit as the City gets covered today. Now, socialist daily the Morning Star is the only paper to employ a full-time industrial correspondent – me.

And given that I have been following things, I would have been more surprised had I discovered Unite weren't debating the Labour link at their rules conference this summer. If there's one thing that's clear to an industrial correspondent touring Britain's seaside towns for the union conference season, it's that whether or not whatever union should be affiliated to the Labour Party is bound to come up time after time after time. That's par for the course, since trade unions are democratic organisations and their members have various different opinions and political beliefs. It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen. If it did happen, it would have to be voted on – a union "baron" couldn't just snap his or her fingers and make it so.


Last month at their conference in Bournemouth, The Communication Workers Union – which represents posties and telecoms staff – heard calls to disaffiliate from Labour. When the allotted time-slot for the debate finally came, you could have heard the delegates' collective groans a mile off. One took to the stage and complained they had the same row every year. Later, a member of the union's executive told me that support for disaffiliation declines each time. But that didn't stop the Independent on Sunday running a double-page spread, written by a journalist who didn't turn up to the conference, suggesting disaffiliation was a serious prospect. Buried deep down, it was acknowledged that "the motions are likely to fail".

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Sometimes, things slip into blatant misrepresentation of the facts. On Newsnight last Wednesday, correspondent Laura Kuenssberg pontificated on the Labour leadership poll. Explaining that Ed Miliband had changed the party rules on internal elections, she observed that "the union block vote is now gone". True, but the block vote – where union leaders voted on behalf of all their members – has been gone since 1994. It was abolished by former Labour leader John Smith. Union members have voted as individuals since they elected Tony Blair. That never stopped the Conservatives and the press claiming that Ed Miliband was "owned" by the union block vote, and the two-decades-old ghost still seems to haunt the party.


The irony is that if newspapers wanted to dig up some dirt on the unions, they'd do well to employ some industrial correspondents. Trade unions still issue press releases but often the best story is not the official line. Ordinary workplace reps will sometimes tell you things press officers won't. That's how I found out, for example, how unhappy grassroots Unison members were over a cancelled strike and a pay settlement for local government workers last year.

If the likes of the Daily Mail really believe their own hype about the unions being essentially un-democratic communist armies ready to storm Downing Street any second, they might want to bother hiring some industrial correspondents to cover them properly.

But if they did, they might be presented with the reality: that we're talking about large, democratic organisations that are often the only power that ordinary people have over their working lives. That might jar with the narrative about out-of-touch dictators determined to make our lives hell.


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