But not always right

Mike Phipps offers a personal review of Always Red, by Len McCluskey, published by OR books.

A happy, working class upbringing, a shop steward at 19, union official at 28 and a rapid ascent through the union hierarchy, his closeness to the Militant tendency in the early 1980s, his election as Unite General Secretary in 2010 – all the key moments of Len McCluskey’s political life are here. But it’s his role in Labour politics – particularly in the Corbyn era – that will interest most readers of this autobiography.

Even while still a candidate for General Secretary in 2010, McCluskey shouted “Rubbish” at Ed Miliband during his first Labour conference speech as leader. “I couldn’t keep it in,” he says. “It was a spontaneous outburst.”

There would be further occasions when McCluskey was unable to contain himself. But it’s a bit disingenuous to say of Miliband a page later, “I gave him as much political support as I could in the early years.” In terms of the souring of relations between the two new leaders of their respective organisations, McCluskey’s outburst would prove costly.

Yet, arguably, the rift was inevitable, given Miliband’s drift towards  the politics of austerity. Shrewdly, McCluskey identifies the Labour leader’s key weakness as his refusal to surround himself with a team of trustworthy supportive MPs. Inexperienced staff without much of a base in the movement were – and still are – not an effective substitute. Without this, the institutional pressures to move away from the principles on which an inexperienced candidate wins the leadership become overwhelming.

Like many of us, McCluskey was swept up by the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership after the 2015 general election defeat. Corbyn’s endorsement by the Unite executive, was a turning point in changing him from a protest candidate to a serious contender. Materially, Unite provided money and office space for Corbyn’s campaign. Hundreds of volunteers, myself included, poured in to do phone banking and other campaigning work. Corbyn’s emphatic win “should have commanded respect right across the party—and from humbled Labour MPs in particular,” writes McCluskey.”Instead, the wreckers got to work immediately.”

Quite a lot has been written about the Corbyn era already. Different accounts do not always correspond, given the need for self-exoneration by key players.  In McCluskey’s version, it was he who recruited Seumas Milne to be the leader’s communications chief. Unsurprisingly, he is dismissive of those who thought Milne sometimes under-performed.

McCluskey felt responsible for making things work, because, “What suddenly became clear after Jeremy’s victory was that nobody around him knew what they were doing.”  One of his first jobs was to tell Corbyn that he couldn’t have John McDonnell as his Shadow Chancellor – not that “that meant I was calling the shots—far from it.”

Instead, McCluskey – who spends several chapters of this book lamenting the years of Labour’s support for austerity – proposed Angela Eagle. Fortunately, this idea went nowhere and McCluskey charitably admits that McDonnell went on to do a brilliant job.

McCluskey is unabashed that part of his job as General Secretary of Unite was to exert influence on behalf of his union in the Labour Party. Quick to spot the dysfunctional state of the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, McCluskey had solutions – most of them involving the recruitment of key figures from Unite. This traditional approach of influence-wielding was a long way from the new, inclusive politics that Corbyn had promised, but if McCluskey is aware that his style might have damaged the leader’s brand, he’s not letting on here.

McCluskey pulls no punches about the ‘chicken coup’ against Jeremy Corbyn after the 2016 Brexit referendum result – “a fucking outrage” – but he reserves his real venom for Corbyn’s disloyal Deputy Leader Tom Watson – “duplicitous”, “sabotage”, “disingenuous”, “a squalid, ignoble way to end a valued friendship” –mostly because Watson scuppered talks between the PLP and union leaders to find a way out of the 2016 crisis.

But of course this was classic Watson behaviour. His reputation for saying different things to different people, and above all for leading his ever-diminishing troops up to the top of the hill, only to march them down again, were so notorious by the end of his term in the job as to be comical.

Not that Watson had a monopoly on duplicity – there was a lot of it about in the Shadow Cabinet in those days. Take Angela Eagle who wanted to run for leader, but wanted to Corbyn to stand down first. It was not to be. Instead Owen Smith ran, for whom the epithet “hapless” might have been invented, were it not for the Labour officials working flat out behind the scenes to try to secure his success. As we know, Corbyn increased his majority in the 2016 leadership election and to universal surprise came close to winning the 2017 general election. Then the real trouble started.

McCluskey’s view of Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’ is pretty straightforward: the issue of antisemitism in the Party was deliberately exaggerated by Corbyn’s opponents to undermine him; but the optics of Corbyn opposing the IHRA definition of antisemitism looked bad, although in the end the issue was not decisive in the 2019 general election. While it’s clear the Party bureaucracy may have dragged its feet on the issue for factional reasons, what McCluskey doesn’t address is why Corbyn’s own inner team found it so difficult to shut down the issue. David Renton’s recently published book on this, which I reviewed recently for Labour Hub, provides a more nuanced account of the problem.

For McCluskey, Brexit was far more damaging. In a chapter entitled ‘A slow-motion car crash’, he lays the blame for the 2019 general election debacle squarely at the door of Keir Starmer, who told the 2018 Labour Party Conference, ““Our options must include campaigning for a public vote, and nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.” In doing this, he was “rightly assuming the leader would prove unwilling or unable to stamp his authority on him and the party.”

This is an over-simplification and unfair to Jeremy Corbyn. Firstly, it was always going to be difficult to stick to the 2017 Leave position given that a more extreme Brexit was now being peddled by the Tories, and that the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party – not just the MPs, but the members too – were Remainers.

McCluskey argues that it was the influence of Remainers – including within the Corbyn team –that explains how the chance to cut a deal with Theresa May’s government for a decent Brexit was squandered by Labour’s negotiators. But a deal was never really on the table: John McDonnell told him, “Len, it’s like negotiating with a company that’s going into administration.”

Secondly, there were other reasons why Labour lost in 2019, ranging from the attacks on Corbyn’s patriotism to the pedestrian campaign compared to 2017. In particular, there were important cleavages at the very top, and not just about Brexit.  McCluskey approaches these in a somewhat score-settling way: Corbyn’s Chief of Staff Karie Murphy, despite having alienated so many co-workers that 20 of Corbyn’s staff signed a letter complaining about “bullying and intimidation”, is entirely blameless in his account. Meanwhile Andrew Fisher, whose private memo protesting at the “blizzard of lies and excuses” and “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency” in the Leader’s Office was leaked to the media, is accused of “betrayal”.

Murphy arguably over-reached her position when she authorised the botched deletion of Tom Watson’s position as Deputy Leader at the NEC at September 2019’s Party Conference. It was a PR disaster for the Party and she was removed as Chief of Staff by Corbyn. In McCluskey’s eyes, this was “a naked power grab” by the Remainer John McDonnell. While McCluskey wants us to believe he had only Corbyn’s best interests at heart, it seems clear that he was, like others he was close to in the Project, pursuing his own agenda.

As the 2019 results came in, “I blamed Jeremy and John” – they had wasted a golden opportunity for the left – “for which the blame must be theirs too.”

Like all political memoirs, McCluskey’s is often an exercise in self-justification, bigging up the things he did right and overlooking the rest. He doesn’t tell us about the full role his union played in voting to kick into touch the 2018 Party democracy review that could have transformed Labour into a genuinely member-led party. He doesn’t mention either how he did his bit for Party disunity by publicly calling the Deputy Leader “a fucking disgrace” a few months before the 2019 election.

Unite rightly backed Rebecca Long-Bailey in the leadership election that followed Corbyn’s resignation. But Keir Starmer’s election to succeed him saw McCluskey’s influence wane. He writes:

“I initially got on well with Keir, speaking to him more regularly than I had to Jeremy. But though our conversations were positive, I found he would regularly do the opposite of what we had discussed. He had won the leadership standing on 10 Corbyn-esque policy pledges and a promise of party unity, yet soon began abandoning those positions and hounding out the left, employing bureaucratic tricks that would have made even Tony Blair blush.”

“This all culminated in the extraordinary, appalling and destructive decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn,” McCluskey reveals.  A deal was apparently struck to lift the suspension on the basis of a statement in Jeremy’s name co-authored by Starmer’s office.  This duly went ahead and an NEC panel lifted Corbyn’s suspension. But Starmer seemingly

“reneged on our deal by withdrawing the whip, leaving Jeremy as a party member but not a Labour MP. It was a dishonourable and shoddy way to behave with potentially disastrous consequences for Labour and his own leadership. I didn’t speak to Keir after that. The trust I had placed in him had proved to be misguided.”

And that’s about it. This section of the book is less an autobiography and more a compilation of McCluksey’s opinions – and he’s got plenty of them. If I’ve been occasionally critical of them, it should nonetheless be underlined that he and his union were a crucial bulwark of support for Jeremy Corbyn when his enemies thought they had him cornered.

Much of Always Red is about the influence McCluskey wielded in the Labour Party in recent years. It’s not only the Starmer leadership that is bringing that to an end. McCluskey’s recently elected successor as Unite General Secretary is the outsider Sharon Graham, rather than the favoured continuity candidate.  She campaigned explicitly on the basis of getting back to workplace organising with a lot less focus on the internal life of the Labour Party. An era has ended and things are set to change – for better or worse remains to be seen.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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