The Reds are back, and Len McCluskey is delighted. In fact, by May 2015 they could come out on top. “If Liverpool could sort their defence out, perhaps next season we could be genuine prospects…” he says, smiling.
The Liverpudlian General Secretary of Unite is, of course, talking about his beloved football club and their recent renaissance. But as the general election countdown continues apace, it’s his other team, Labour, that he wants to bounce back from years of underachievement to deliver a “level playing field” for his members.
Yet with the May elections and Scottish independence referendum looming, it’s clear that the man dubbed ‘Red Len’ by the media is worried that Ed Miliband’s party are not red enough, radical enough or in touch enough with the working class voters it needs for victory.
And although Unite has just cut £1.5m from its affiliation fees to Labour, Britain’s biggest union remains a crucial donor and McCluskey has been given authority to pump in cash should it need it for the 2015 campaign.
In his office in Holborn, McCluskey’s other passion outside politics is rapidly obvious as a giant chess set sits proudly on his coffee table (“a Christmas present, a family gift, my children clubbed together”). With UKIP on the rise and the SNP a real force, he’s already assessing the political tactics and strategy needed for the next 14 months.
Today, his immediate focus is on the Budget. Apart from urging the Chancellor to ‘stop the cuts’, Unite would call for a new British Investment Bank, a big expansion of housebuilding, a new general anti-avoidance rule on tax and an increase of the minimum wage of £1.50 an hour, taking it close to the Living Wage. Just as importantly, he wants British workers’ rights to be restored to match those of the rest of Europe.
He wants to see the procurement rules changed in particular. “It’s so frustrating and annoying. Over £200bn a year our Government spends on services and what we would like to see is British companies given the inside track…Everything the German and French governments do gives their companies an inside track.”
In the UK, ambulances, police vehicles and even ministerial cars are all non-British makes. “All at the moment are foreign, it’s an outrage. You go to Germany of course and they will all be Mercedes.”
McCluskey says there is a wider problem with a lack of investment in British manfacturing. And the way unions are treated. “In Germany, 90% of German workers are covered by collective bargaining. In this country it used to be as high as 80%, it’s now down to 22%. What that means is workers are exposed to the abuses that come from bad employers.”
But what should a Government do to change that? “It can introduce statutory collective bargaining rights so it effectively enforces employers together. Good employers would welcome it, because they’re the ones that don’t particularly like getting caught up in a race to the bottom but very often find themselves sucked into that.”
He points to an example in the car industry. “In one day, I visited the Goodwood factory that makes the Rolls Royce car down on the south coast and then I drove up to Cowley [in Oxford] where they make the Mini. You couldn’t get two more iconic British cars, the Mini and the Rolls Royce – both owned of course by BMW. I asked the managing directors in both of the companies, who were both German, ‘tell me the difference between Germany and the UK?’ And they both looked at me slightly hesitantly and said ‘well, we wouldn’t want to be offensive but you don’t seem to take manufacturing seriously in the UK’.
“I was on the shop floor and the managing director said to me ‘here’s an iconic British car made by British workers in a British plant and yet look here’. And he pointed to a huge big warehouse with 600 robots working away. He said ‘all of those robots are made in Germany. I can’t get them made here. If I could there would be 600 British robots.’
One reason for the Germans’ engineering success is their strong links between schools, colleges, universities and industry, he adds. McCluskey points to the example of his own son. “He was going into university and I asked him had he considered going into manufacturing. He looked at me as though I’d landed from planet Mars,” he says. “I asked him about engineering and design and he was more interested in finance and advertising and the sexy stuff.”
McCluskey says that in the recent high profile case of Grangemouth, the owner of refinery firm Ineos just wouldn’t have been allowed under the law to do in his German plants what he could in Scotland.
Mention of Grangemouth is a reminder of the controversy that surrounded Unite’s campaign of protests at the home of a senior manager. The General Secretary says the wider ‘leverage’ campaign is different from protests, and is more about targeting shareholders and others. But he’s unrepentant about street demonstrations.
“If you’re going to behave badly, then you’ve got to live with the consequence and those consequences are quite far reaching. It’s highly sophisticated. Demonstrating outside of directors’ homes is a different issue, it’s another arrow in our quiver, if you like. It’s as old as Adam. Protest is the basis of democracy. Nobody is intimidated, nobody is pressurised, children aren’t persuaded to join in, it is a silent protest and as such it is limited numbers and it is legal. Which is why we’ve never ever had the police taken any action.
“The media would like to portray this as a bunch of rent-a-thugs; it’s nothing like that. It’s based on this premise if directors make a decision to destroy jobs, to destroy communities and then disappear back into their leafy existence then they need to understand that we may well take the opportunity of making them accountable.”
He cites another example: “It was similar to when Magnet Kitchens sacked 350 workers in Darlington, a poor northern town, for taking legal action. We had a protest and the CEO who was responsible lived in the leafy village of St. Neots in Cambrideshire and we took a protest there where we bought some land opposite where he lived and set up a chicken farm and distributed leaflets around his village about what he was doing to people.
“Now, did I feel bad about that? Absolutely not. What I felt bad about was Darlington, a town that was struggling to keep its head above water and 360 decent people who had been unfairly sacked. So I don’t rule anything out in future, when we are fighting bad bosses.
“These are bad bosses. We very rarely use this tactic and we are involved in a number of disputes with employers, but those are normal run of the mill disputes that you can resolve quite quickly. But when we are dealing with employers who we regard as acting in an immoral fashion and with total disregard for consultation and disrespecting their workforce then we will reserve the right to use whatever tactics we can legally.”
Unlike some MPs, McCluskey has time to take a longer view of the political scene. Re-elected as the head of Unite last year, he’s guaranteed to remain in post until 2018.
With Ed Miliband’s union-link reforms having been approved by this month’s special conference, McCluskey’s affiliated members will drop to 500,000, but that’s still a lot of people. And Unite authorised him to make donations ‘beyond affiliations’ should Labour need them.
“It’s our party. This is my party. This is like my football club is Liverpool Football Club, it will never be any different. I want them to do well and I want my party to do well. And whilst we’ve cut our affiliation fee, which was a natural thing for us to do following Ed’s announcement, we also made it clear that we’ve got no intentions of bankrupting our party or allowing it to go into an election with one arm tied behind its back. So of course we’d be looking to make finances available wherever they are needed in the battle.”
Does he have a shopping list of policies he wants from a Labour government in return? “We are not going to buy our policies. We haven’t got a list of things with a price tag alongside it. It is our party and we play a role in that party like historically we always have done. What does that mean? It means me trying to influence things, along with other general secretaries.”
Labour will always be a ‘broad church’, McCluskey accepts, saying that “New Labour and so called Blairism definitely isn’t dead.” But he adds: “One of the characteristics central to Blairism was a kind of radical individualism at the expense of collectivism. It is the trade unions that run on collectivism. During the period of the New Labour years, that value has been lost or debilitated and I think that as a result our party has suffered and that’s why part of our problem at the moment is getting ordinary working people to come back to Labour, to see Labour as their natural voice.”
As for the ‘special adviser’ class of Labour candidates and MPs, McCluskey says: “I do say this. This is part of the problem about getting trade unionists and ordinary working people back involved in the party. The face of the Parliamentary Labour Party, everybody recognises that there has been a dramatic switch. That’s a challenge for Labour and for Ed Miliband. He has to demonstrate that the Labour party is still the party of organised labour. And still the party of ordinary working people.”
Through the candidates it has for Westminster seats? “Yes absolutely,” he replies.
“I think Labour will win the next election, I’m hoping they form the next Government, whether it’s a majority or a minority Government. But the future of the Labour party is still very much up for scrutiny. One very wise old Labour MP said to me quite recently ‘the Labour Party has no God given right to exist, it can only exist if it is the voice of ordinary working people and trade unionists’. He was right.”
And as for Karie Murphy, the provisional candidate in Falkirk, how does he think she was treated?
“I think the whole Falkirk situation was badly handled by Labour and the accusations that were levelled both at my union and individuals within Scotland was wrong. I hope everybody learns lessons from this. The truth is that there’s many individuals unfortunately who’ve been badly treated by the Labour party over the years, the thing is for people to learn lessons so that our party can move forward in a much more focused and progressive way in the future.”
Labour, like the Conservatives, are facing a big challenge in the May elections from UKIP, not least in urban metropolitan council seats. McCluskey says the party has to show that it is listening to worries about immigration and the EU.
“It’s a protest vote, but an awful lot of working people believe that all the politicians are the same, there’s not a lot of difference between the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems that nobody’s really dealing with their concerns over immigration and Europe.
“And therefore along come UKIP, fill the void. Be under no illusions, there are significant numbers of ordinary Labour voters, Labour constituents, who are attracted to UKIP and Labour therefore need to challenge the void that exists, to recognise the concerns that people have about immigration and to try and deal with it.”
He says that if Labour can build more homes it can tackle the claim that migrants often jump the waiting list. “The other issue is about ‘these people come over and take our jobs and undercut our wages’ and there is an element of truth in that. It’s not immigrants to blame for that, it’s unscrupulous bosses who are playing the system. That goes back to the point about collective bargaining and rates of pay being established in statutory law to protect the workers.”
Is he thinking of the construction industry in particular? “Very much so. In that case there would be no need for employers to go and bring Romanian or Polish workers or Estonian workers or what have you in to undercut wage rates here. If they weren’t allowed to do it, then the likelihood is they’d say ‘well, why don’t we just employ British workers, local workers?’”
McCluskey says that Gordon Brown was unfairly criticised for using the phrase ‘British jobs for British workers’ (“he could have used the term ‘local workers’ that would have more accurately reflected it”) but the former PM struck a jarring note when he called pensioner Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman”. “I think immigration is a problem. There was this perfectly nice woman asking a question that significant numbers of white working class people were asking and Gordon reacted wrongly to it. And that’s a danger because what the Labour Party needs to do is recognise those concerns but deal with them.”
Given the rise of UKIP, and given his clear worry that the EU is turning from a ‘workers’ Europe’ into a ‘bosses’ Europe’, does he back the idea of an In-Out referendum? Some in Labour say that backing a referendum would help them outflank the Tories.
“I think it is an interesting view. I’ve heard that expressed by a number of Labour MPs, that we should just call for a referendum,” he says. He hesitates and laughs, clearly uncomfortable and just stopping himself from saying that he agrees. “My…my union is a pro-Europe union…and therefore we believe that we should stay in Europe.”
But wouldn’t a referendum give the people a say? Even pro-Europeans think a direct vote could settle the issue for a generation. “I understand that and I think it’s got some validity,” he replies. “I think the likelihood in a referendum is that there would probably be a very heavy Yes vote to stay in Europe. I don’t think there’s enough discussion about Europe. If you ask a lot of my members, they don’t know enough and of course one thing a referendum would do is at least generate a debate. I’m not saying we’re in favour of a referendum but I am saying that we really need to discuss Europe much more deeply within our own membership, so that we can understand both the advantages and some of the disadvantages, so that we can understand the threat that currently exists.”
Some in the union movement, and in the Labour Party, worry that the planned free trade deal between the EU and the US, the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), could usher in new rules barring public services from returning to the state once outsourced.
“When Europe was first embraced, it had a huge social charter, social element in it,” he says. “That’s being eroded at the moment. David Cameron and the Conservatives are saying ‘yes we want to stay in Europe but we want to change it’ but what they want to change is they want to worsen workers’ conditions and workers’ rights. That’s already happening, it’s seeping into Europe and I’m concerned about that.”
“We need to get to a situation whereby British workers should have the same protections and rights as our colleagues in the rest of Europe. The crux to this is we are the worst protected workforce in the whole of western Europe and that’s an outrage. It was our nation who defeated fascism and gave Europe all of the freedoms that they currently have. I suspect you asked the British public ‘do you think it’s fair that German, Italian, Belgian and Dutch workers have better protections?’, a huge 90 odd per cent would say it’s not.”
“The German government embrace trade unions. They seem trade unions as part of their co-determination, they respect trade unions. All you get from this Government is attacks on trade unions, to portrao trade unionist as the enemy within. Trade unions are the largest voluntary organisation in our society. We are talking about, if you include people’s families, about 10 million people or more who are part of the trade union family and are being demonised.”
What does he want a Labour government to do specifically on this?
“Make a declaration ‘why should British workers be worse off and have worse treatment?’ That simple declaration makes it easier then for us to talk about the complexity of employment law and the intricacies of the legal system, I could produce a book this thick about what should or shouldn’t happen, but in a more pragmatic fashion we would look for a future Government to recognise this question of fairness. So we can get back on a level playing field.”
The Scots independence referendum is also prompting a lively internal debate for Unite members too. Again, McCluskey tries to tread the fine line between acknowledging his union’s neutrality and expressing his own private view. “It’s obviously a crucial debate, my union takes a position of neutrality, probably for good reasons. Our private polling tells us that about 40% of our own Unite members voted SNP, a huge shift from what would traditionally be Labour supporters. So one of the most practical reasons why we currently take a neutral position is it would split our union down the middle if we came out for or against.”
But would he personally be sad to see Scotland leave the UK or would it be a good idea? “I actually…don’t have a personal view on these things,” he smiles. “I have a view as the General Secretary of Unite. What we are trying to do and most of the unions are is to say the debate should be about what type of Scotland ordinary working people want and in that context, it is that type of debate we want to stimulate.
“I think it’s a great thing, I think it’s really good that it’s happening. I think the SNP are perceived in some areas to be more radical than Labour and so that is a challenge to Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour have lost some of their radical edge and they’ve got to regain it otherwise Alex Salmond will gallop up our left wing. I think that might be a good thing for politics in general up in Scotland if Labour begin to remember their history and radicalise themselves more.”
Warming to his theme, he also says that opinion polls south of the border could be a key factor in the outcome. “Remember we are talking about a nation which has kicked the Tories out. They have one Westminster MP [in Scotland]. That’s critical. If I was living up in Scotland at the moment, and I know that this is happening, having chased the Tories out of my country they’re looking at what’s going to happen in Westminster. If, come September, there was a likelihood of a Conservative Government being reelected in Westminster, I think that might have an impact on the thinking of Scottish people, who might say ‘another five years of that? We may as well go it alone’.
“I feel that’s why it’s also a challenge to Ed Miliband to demonstrate to Scottish people and to the rest of us that he’s driving forward on an alternative programme to austerity and poverty and if he does that I think the opinion polls will show he will be the next Prime Minister. And therefore that will have an impact on Scottish independence.”
Yet another referendum is causing an altogether different controversy in Ukraine, as the Russian-dominated leaders of Crimea plot their own poll on breaking away. Unite has in the past allied with the Stop the War Coalition, does its General Secretary agree with the group’s stance on Russia’s ‘legitimate’ interests in Ukraine?
McCluskey points out that the crisis is “highly complex” but his priority would be diplomacy. “The last thing we want to see is any violence and therefore we would constantly urge both Russia and the Ukraine and the Western forces to talk, to engage in a debate and a discussion otherwise we might find ourselves in a really difficult situation with ethnic cleansing and violence. So we are in favour of talk,” he says.
“Of course like all of these things, it has a history. And the history of Ukraine is complicated. This goes back to way beyond the Soviet Union, it goes back to Tsarist Russia where the Crimea was annexed to become part of the Tsarist empire because of its strategic nature so it has lots and lots of complicated history, including a Second World War where 20 million Russians were annihilated and obviously reactionary forces inside Ukraine at the moment, neo-Nazi forces are gaining prominence and it therefore beholds the West, who of course have had an involvement, to take a very calm approach to it. Whether Russia has the ability and the legal right to occupy part of another nation is of course questionable. But when you look at that nation, you’ve effectively got this huge Russian ethnic group who speak Russian, you’ve got another section of the population who speak Ukrainian. Right away you’ve got this conflict and these difficulties. As it happens, when it was the Soviet Union, Russians and Ukrainians mixed happily together and so it is regrettable what’s happened at the moment. It’s something that we all, in particular Russia, have got to be calm about. But the West can’t respond to these demands that this poor country has suddenly been invaded. We need to take a much more focused view because you remember the President of the Ukraine was democratically elected and he was turfed out of office, and therefore there are complications that need diplomacy as a way to try and resolve this.”
Back home, it’s the other Reds he’s focused on. In an echo of his economic case, McCluskey can point to his Liverpool team investing for the long term, including in a controversial striker. “We are playing some lovely football. Brendan Rogers has got an ethos about him that marks him out potentially as being a great, great manager. And of course we have Luis Suarez,” he says. “I don’t think we will win the League [this year]. I’ll be happy if we just secured Champions League, but next season…”
Will 2015 be the breakthrough year? With another mischievous smile, he replies: “Red Len, through and through.”
LEN ON…BRITISH SHORT-TERMISM
“German banks, when they invest in companies, look for a return in 30 years’ time. British banks have looked for a return in 30 minutes.”
LEN ON…GERMAN INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS
“The German government embrace trade unions, they respect trade unions. All you get from this Government is attacks as the enemy within.”
LEN ON…‘MANUFACTURING CHAMPIONS’
“Companies who tick certain boxes on good industrial relations and investment should be given assistance and support and tax breaks”
LEN ON…ED MILIBAND
“He has to demonstrate that the Labour Party is still the party of organised labour.”
LEN ON…BRITISH FIRMS SOLD OVERSEAS
“During the Thacher years it was like a car boot sale”
LEN ON…DIRECT ACTION PROTESTS
“When we are dealing with employers who we regard as acting in an immoral fashion …then we will reserve the right to use whatever tactics we can legally.”