Joff Wild on why Len McCluskey will never abandon Jeremy Corbyn
One of the more striking aspects of Labour’s headlong plunge into seemingly permanent civil war and irrelevance is the role being played by the trade unions in the conflict; and, in particular, the unwavering and highly vocal support that Jeremy Corbyn has received from Unite leader Len McCluskey.
Speaking at the Unite annual conference this week, for example, McCluskey described the mass resignation of shadow ministers from Labour’s front bench as “a cowardly attack”, continuing: “Jeremy Corbyn has always – always – stood by us, stood on the picket lines, joined our campaigns, argued our case in parliament, advocated for workers’ rights … What sort of people would we be, had we joined in the witch-hunt? Never mind that I could not have come to this conference, I could not have looked myself in the mirror, had this union done anything other than stand by Jeremy.”
At the same conference, Unite delegates voted to introduce mandatory reselection of Labour MPs, a move that would undoubtedly benefit Corbyn and the hard left, while associate membership of Unite was being offered at a price of £2 so that people could sign up and vote in the forthcoming Labour leadership election before that loophole was closed by the NEC.
To outsiders, McCluskey’s support may seem somewhat strange. The polling evidence points clearly to the fact that, just like those of other unions, Unite members believe that Jeremy Corbyn should stand down as Labour leader. What’s more, Corbyn is opposed to current Labour policy on Trident renewal, something that Unite is very much in favour of; while his lacklustre support for Remain during the referendum was – at best – unhelpful to a cause to which Unite was deeply committed. All this before you even begin to consider that ongoing Tory government is unlikely to be beneficial to the unions in general.
McCluskey can read the runes just like anyone else and is not, despite appearances to the contrary sometimes, a foolish man. He knows that under Jeremy Corbyn Labour cannot win a general election and is likely instead to be heavily defeated. So why the unequivocal backing for the current Labour leader? Well, it’s all about Unite’s internal politics.
Although Unite is the country’s biggest trade union by far, boasting around 1.5 million members, those who are actively involved in the organisation represent a much smaller number. When he was re-elected as general-secretary for a further five year term in April 2013, for example, McCluskey beat his challenger by 144,570 votes to 79,819. That’s a turnout of 15.2%.
If McCluskey wants to keep his job, which comes with a six figure salary and a generous pension package – not to mention trips to places such as Las Vegas, as well as regular TV appearances and newspaper interviews – it is the 15% to 20% of members who may take part in the next leadership election that he needs to keep onside. And that activist base is well to the left of the political mainstream and to Unite’s membership generally. Indeed, Jerry Hicks, the man who took him on back in 2013, was a member of Respect and stood as a candidate for the party in Bristol in 2009.
The next Unite leadership election takes place in two years, when McCluskey will be 68. It will be the last one he contests and his challenger is almost certain to be to the left of him. McCluskey cannot afford to go into the campaign with accusations of having given succor to “Blairites” and “Red Tories” hanging over his head.
Thus, whatever else happens between now and September, you can be sure that Len McCluskey will stand should to shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn as loudly and as ostentatiously as possible. Whether that will continue should he be re-elected in 2018, though, is another matter entirely.