UK Politics

Labour conference: Len McCluskey says unions were seen as 'evil'

Len MCluskey
Image caption Len McCluskey has been highly critical of Ed Miliband's backing for a public sector pay freeze

New Labour bought into the right wing media's portrayal of its union backers as "evil", Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has claimed.

He said the party treated the unions as a "nutty relative" who had to be "kept at arm's length".

But its current leadership were moving towards a better understanding of what the unions were about, he told a meeting at the Labour conference.

The Unite leader said the unions were always "on the side of the angels".

Mr McCluskey has had some harsh words this week for Ed Miliband over the Labour leader's backing for a public sector pay freeze, saying he was out of touch with ordinary workers.

He repeated his criticism at the Unite fringe, saying it did not make economic sense to cut the wages of low paid workers.

'Nutty relative'

But he also made a point of praising Mr Miliband on other issues and described shadow chancellor Ed Balls' big conference speech as "very, very good".

He said the party was still not doing enough to fight for the unions, but the era when they were regarded as "evil" was at least over.

"That's something that seeped into the psyche of the Labour Party. That's why for many years we were kept at arm's length - the nutty relative kept up in the attic who could slide cheques under the door every now and then but kept away."

He said trade unions have "always been a force for good in our society".

At one point, Mr McCluskey pretended to spit as he mentioned "Thatcher", which earned a cheer from the packed crowd in the Unite marquee and a smile from business secretary Chuka Umunna, sat next to him on the platform.

'Wealth creators'

The union leader revealed he has had talks with Mr Umunna about boosting union rights to the levels enjoyed by German workers, something he hoped would happen if Labour wins the next election.

Mr Umunna told the meeting Labour had not done enough in the past to "celebrate" the unions and he praised them as "wealth creators".

He hit back at claims by one Unite member that Ed Miliband "visibly squirmed" with embarrassment when David Cameron mentioned Labour's links to the unions at prime minister's questions.

"I sit very close to Ed at prime minister's questions and he doesn't squirm when David Cameron gets to his feet, I can assure you of that", he told the meeting, adding that the Labour leader regularly got the better of the PM at their Commons clashes.

He also vowed that Labour would vote against the government's Enterprise Bill if coalition ministers did not scrap plans for tougher rules on unfair dismissal and moves to water down equality and human rights laws "by stealth".

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