UK Politics

Profile: Len McCluskey, Unite leader

Len McCluskey
Image caption Len McCluskey was elected general secretary of Unite in November 2010

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite, the UK's biggest union. Radio 4'sProfilecharts his political roots and asks what is he hoping to achieve in austerity Britain?

If you have been caught up in the petrol pump panic of recent weeks, then you have also been part of the political drama which has seen Len McCluskey pitted against the coalition government.

Mr McCluskey's Unite union represents the fuel tanker drivers who threatened to strike - and a total 1.5m workers across the UK.

Unite is also the Labour Party's biggest financial donor, and so Mr McCluskey has his hands on the levers to make both Ed Miliband and the coalition government sweat.

The Conservatives have styled him as "reckless" and a "union baron". They also described him as "unpatriotic" back when he declared the London 2012 Olympics a legitimate target for protest.

"I knew it was controversial,"Mr McCluskey told the BBC's Hardtalk programme. "I'm angry, and I want people to be angry."

White-collar unionism

Mr McCluskey, 61, is a firm believer in people power, and showed political will from an early age.

Image caption Len McCluskey began his union career as a clerical worker, employed in Liverpool's docks

He was born in north Liverpool in 1950, the son of a painter-decorator also named Len, and Peggy - a political inspiration to her son and once heard to remark that she would "rather bite off her arm than vote Tory".

He began his working life on the Liverpool docks - not as a docker but as a white-collar clerical worker, among whom there was no strong tradition of trade union organisation.

The then 19-year-old Mr McCluskey became a shop steward and helped unionise the white-collar staff, and then became leader of a union branch - the 5, 6, 7 branch.

The Casa, a social welfare centre and bar in Liverpool, is the modern hangout of this still fiercely loyal clique. Mr McCluskey launched his leadership of Unite there.

Tony Nelson, a docker from the 5,6,7 days who co-founded the Casa, says that from the start Mr McCluskey had a wider political mission than just pay and conditions on the docks.

"Where we were different from a lot of other branches was that we were involved as much in pay and conditions as other disputes that were going on.

"It was lawful then to boycott cargoes that were coming into Liverpool and we were involved in the Chilean campaign against Pinochet at the time, and Len was always at the forefront of these struggles."

Militancy and poetry

From the beginning, Mr McCluskey saw union politics as part of a wider solidarity and as the 1980s arrived - with him by now a full-time union officer - a more radical political vision was emerging in Liverpool.

Image caption Len McCluskey is a fan of poets such as WB Yeats

The Militant Tendency was in the ascendancy - a left-wing, Trotskyist group that polarised the Labour Party and caught the national attention in their opposition to Margaret Thatcher's policies

"In those days, we were just coming off the backs of the docks being shut down, the factories being shut down. It was a major, major, major blow to the city of Liverpool," says Derek Hatton, Liverpool's former deputy council leader who was eventually expelled from Labour over his membership of Militant.

"Everyone who was involved in that era couldn't help but be touched by that era."

Len McCluskey was never formally part of the Militant Tendency himself, although he supported many of its policies.

He also loves football - always Liverpool, never Everton - but his friends say he likes poetry or a night at the theatre too.

"He's very quietly intellectual. He's very well read, he's read nearly every poet on the planet," says the Labour MP Tom Watson, who once shared a house in London with Mr McCluskey.

"When you go out with him, if he gives you advice about life, it's usually in the words of WB Yeats or some of the Liverpool poets from the 1960s and 70s.

"His own language is very lyrical. He doesn't really weave that into his speeches or his political and industrial life, but to his friends he's quite a wise counsel, and there's usually a line of poetry to underpin his argument."

Radical inner circle

So does this more subtle style extend into his professional life as a trade union negotiator?

Alan Jones, industrial correspondent at the Press Association, covered Mr McCluskey's long-running negotiation with British Airways over cabin staff pay.

Image caption Len McCluskey was relatively quiet as the UK was gripped by the panic buying of petrol

He argues that although Mr McCluskey is not afraid to be fiery or unpopular, he has risen to the top precisely because he is different from the intransigent union leaders of old - men like miners' leader Arthur Scargill.

"He is about as different from Arthur Scargill as you can get. I think he's more willing to cut a deal.

"I'm not saying he doesn't shout and rant but since becoming general secretary of Unite they haven't really been in that many really big disputes, such as this tanker drivers' one."

As a shrewd operator, says Alan Jones, perhaps Mr McCluskey has seen it as wiser to stay relatively silent during the petrol pump saga - while the coalition government has taken the heat over panic buying of fuel.

Mr McCluskey is not the archetypal trade unionist, at least not in appearance, but his friends say his politics are definitely hard left.

These hard-left views worry some within the Labour Party, because the Unite union is a big player.

He has expressed interest in direct political action with groups such as UK Uncut, and members of his inner circle are known to hold radical political views even further to the left.

"I think it tells us that Len McCluskey is not someone who is going to seek to be bound by the narrow confines of the Labour Party but is going to look to reach outside of the Labour movement to build his coalition," says Dan Hodges, an ex-union worker and Labour Party commentator who now blogs for the Daily Telegraph.

"Whether that will ultimately be beneficial to him and his union, only time will tell."

Karaoke favourites

As well as cultivating an external powerbase, how far is Mr McCluskey trying to push the Labour Party to the left?

During the recent furore over Conservative Party political funding, the Tories pointed out that Mr McCluskey had met Labour leader Ed Miliband eight times since his election - with Unite donating £5m to Labour in that period.

Image caption Len McCluskey's union Unite has donated £5m to the Labour Party since Ed Miliband became leader

But Parliamentary Labour Party deputy chairman Tom Watson downplays his friend's influence:

"It's really easy to characterise, as the tabloid press tend to do, Ed Miliband being captured by the general secretaries of the big three trade unions.

"I actually don't believe that, and they don't believe that either... you've only got to look at the tough messaging that Ed Balls came out with on public sector pay."

Mr Watson is referring to Labour leaders saying they would accept a squeeze on public sector pay, and Mr Miliband made a much-publicised speech in which he said Labour needed to stand up and face very tough choices in relation to public spending and deficit reduction.

"Len McCluskey then penned an article in the Guardian," says Dan Hodges, "which said: 'You don't have to make too many tough choices, Ed' - and since then Ed Miliband has not said a word about tough choices or deficit reduction."

Old friend Jim Mowatt says Mr McCluskey is unafraid to use the levers of power he now has available to him to get both party and nation to dance to his tune - but does he have a bigger political vision for the UK, more than just representing the interests of the unions?

"Yes, and I would be disappointed if that wasn't his perspective," says Mr Mowatt.

"We want a Labour Party that respects the values of working people, that sits solidly behind lifting people's aspirations and helping people achieve their aspirations.

"The Labour Party in Parliament needs to look more like Labour voters."

On this, his friends agree that in Labour politics, and on the national stage, we will be hearing more from Mr McCluskey.

And here is one final insight into the man.

As I prepared to leave my interview with Mr Watson, it turns out that beyond the workers' solidarity, the football and the poetry, Mr McCluskey has other passions you might not expect.

"He loves karaoke, and will be mortified when I tell the nation that the last song he sang with me was Kings of Leon - Sex On Fire."

And did he sing it with some gusto?

"With gusto, but he's a terrible singer."

This edition ofProfilewas broadcast onBBC Radio 4on Saturday, 31 March 2012 at 19:00 GMT.

Listen again and explore the Profile archive via theRadio 4 websiteor by downloading the Profilepodcast.

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