8 October 2020

Keir Starmer should make a virtue of opposing the awful Len McCluskey


In August 1990, the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait, a member-state of the United Nations. The efforts of a US-led coalition to militarily reverse this flagrant aggression a few months later had the backing of the United Nations and the authorisation of a Security Council resolution.

But one organisation in Britain knew better than to confront tyranny. It was the Manufacturing, Science & Finance (MSF) union. The MSF signed up to a campaign, headed by the likes of Tony Benn, Bruce Kent and John Pilger, opposing military action. Neither I, as a paid-up member, nor my branch had any say in the matter. The union didn’t represent our views and made no effort to find out what its hundreds of thousands of members thought on the issue. 

Little changes. By a series of amalgamations, the MSF eventually became part of the Unite union, whose general secretary, Len McCluskey, went on Newsnight this week to warn that Labour under Keir Starmer is disappointing him. Ahead of a meeting of the union executive, he threatened a cut in Unite’s funding for Labour, with further cuts to follow if the party doesn’t do as he wants. Once again, the union’s members had no say in the matter.

To say this is an outrageous way to behave is true but beside the point. This is what you’d expect from a small circle of affluent ideologues who’ve driven Labour to electoral catastrophe. You can sometimes see McCluskey with his colleagues in the bar of the 5-star NYX hotel in Holborn. I don’t begrudge McCluskey his choice of venue, but it’s not likely to be one where you find many other Unite members, who are, after all, paying the bill. His fellow supporters of the party’s previous management range from Wykehamists such as Seumas Milne (a press adviser on a six-figure salary) to the Scottish aristocrat Andrew Murray, and of course the privately educated Jeremy Corbyn himself. 

None of these people are actually damaged by the election, with a thumping majority, of an incompetent and doctrinaire Conservative government. It’s enough, for them, that Labour was led by a man who broke all records for unpopularity of an opposition leader, was demonstrably incapable of understanding policy issues, had a long history of allying with anti-Semites, and consigned the party to predictable (and predicted) oblivion. Why, indeed, should McCluskey pay attention to a new leader who has turned round a vast deficit in the opinion polls and restored the party’s intellectual and moral credibility?

Under McCluskey’s influence, Unite has not been backward in spending money on its favoured political projects. As John Ware, the Panorama reporter, points out today in Times Red Box, Unite gambled and lost £1.75 million in supporting Skwawkbox, a virulent far-left site that in 2018 ran an article headed ‘The Jewish ‘War Against Corbyn’ risks bringing real anti-Semitism to Britain’, in a doomed defence against a libel action brought by the former Labour MP Anna Turley. Again, Unite’s members had no say in this preposterous vanity project involving their own money.

The inevitable denouement of Corbyn’s presence and his flatterers’ encouragement of him was that large numbers of longstanding Labour voters, including me, abandoned the party in 2019. Starmer has a mountainous task to get them back, though he has started strongly. He should make a virtue of Unite’s opposition and use it as an opportunity to rebuild the party and its relations with the wider labour movement.

Trade unions are much less influential than they were in the postwar years up to the 1980s, but they have a vital role even so. As an economics columnist, I’ve often argued that Britain needs tighter, not looser, labour market regulation, and more stringent health & safety legislation. Unions rightly campaign on these and other issues. Overall, they advance economic efficiency as well as equity by countering monopsonistic wage-setting in industry. The political views of rank-and-file trade unionists, on the other hand, are highly variegated, and will remain so even if McCluskey continues to pretend he knows them (by thought transference, presumably, as he doesn’t actually ask for them).

All of this is how Starmer should think of the connection between Labour and the unions. They are one part of a broad coalition that has never been philosophically or sociologically homogeneous. If Unite is irate at Starmer’s record, that’s a tribute to him and an indication that his message is getting through. It’s a good thing, not a criticism, that wealthy donors are returning to the party who shunned it under Corbyn, and they should be welcomed and encouraged. 

There’s a strong case – again, I’ve often argued it in print – for narrowing inequality by raising higher-rate taxes and taxing property properly, and there are plenty of people who’ll lose out from such policies who can be persuaded nonetheless to support a reformist, liberal, internationalist party of the type that Labour at its best has been. McCluskey will bluster and threaten, but Labour will have recovered its soul. 

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.