Always Red


LEN McCLUSKEY

Foreword by RICKY TOMLINSON

“Len tells his story as only he can: forthright, confident and witty. He is an amazing and unusual trade union leader who manages to encompass industrial, social and international campaigning all at the same time. His support for struggles all around the world, as well as for democratising the Labour Party and injecting the politics of social transition into our movement, will leave a lasting mark and legacy.” —Jeremy Corbyn

“Pulls no punches. An explosive account of life at the top of the Labour Party from Britain’s most important trade union leader.” —Kevin Maguire

“Len’s life story is an inspiration. He lives and breathes solidarity. He is a true workers’ leader.”
—Maxine Peake

“Len reminds us what—and who—we’re fighting for. He knows his own mind and isn’t afraid to speak it.” —Zarah Sultana

“The riveting story of a lifetime spent fighting for workers, with lessons for all of us. Len learned the value of solidarity working on the Liverpool docks and it has never left him.” —Dave Ward

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About the Book

Len McCluskey is the standout trade unionist of his era. Head of the giant Unite union for more than a decade, he is a unique and powerful figure on the political stage.

In this major autobiography, McCluskey throws back the curtains on life at the top of the Labour movement—with explosive revelations about his dealings with Keir Starmer, the behind-the-scenes battles of the Corbyn era, his secret Brexit negotiations with Theresa May’s government, the spectacular bust-up with his former friend Tom Watson, and his tortuous relationship with Ed Miliband.

McCluskey is no run-of-the-mill trade unionist. Fiercely political, unflinchingly left wing, he is a true workers’ leader. His politics were formed in Liverpool at a time of dock strikes, the Beatles, and the May 1968 revolution in Paris. An eyewitness to the Hillsborough tragedy, he recounts in harrowing detail searching for his son.

Witty and sharp, McCluskey delivers a powerful intervention, issuing a manifesto for the future of trade unionism and urging the left not to lose sight of class politics.

A central player in a tumultuous period of British political history, McCluskey’s account is an essential—and entertaining—record of our times.

334 pages with 16 pages of black and white photographs
Hardcover ISBN 978-1-68219-272-6 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-276-4

About the Author

Len mccluskey author photo

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Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the Union for more than a decade, is a trade unionist from Liverpool. Elected a shop steward on the Liverpool docks aged 19, he rose through the Transport and General Workers’ Union before playing an instrumental role in the creation of Unite. As its leader, he became a national political figure and a powerful influence in the Labour Party. He is a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club and the author of Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist.

Read an Excerpt

THE CHICKEN COUP

It was the weekend after Britain voted to leave the European Union. The government was in turmoil. The prime minister had announced his resignation. The Tories looked on the brink of a split. The country’s future was uncertain—no one had a clue what would happen next. Millions of people were anxious. Racist hate crimes were surging. But as I flicked between news programmes, all they were talking about was a coup against the leader of the Labour Party.

All day it went on as one shadow minister after another resigned live on TV. Late the previous night, on learning that his shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was plotting a coup against him, Jeremy Corbyn had called his great friend’s son and sacked him. That fired the starting gun on the coordinated resignations: first Heidi Alexander before 9 a.m., then Gloria De Piero at 11, Ian Murray at noon, Lilian Greenwood at 1, and so on. Twelve resigned through-out the day and eight more the next—most, not all, scurrilous individuals who should never have been in the shadow cabinet to begin with. The crescendo came when Angela Eagle brought herself to tears over her own resignation on air. What a pitiful display.

The sheer arrogance of these MPs—who owed their stature to being in the shadow cabinet, not the other way around—attempting to cancel the democratic choice of hundreds of thousands of Labour members by inflicting as much damage as possible on their own party left me aghast. It was a betrayal that should never be forgiven. With each one that went, part of me thought, “Fuck them. Good job they’ve gone. Replace them immediately.” And that’s exactly what happened. Corbyn refused to be bullied out, while some of the worst people in the Labour Party purged themselves from his shadow cabinet, leaving it a considerably better team. Watching those resignations, I didn’t have a moment’s doubt that I would be doing everything possible to defend Corbyn’s leadership.

***

The ‘chicken coup’ of Summer 2016 was one of the most extraordinary and shameful episodes in the history of the Labour Party. It confirmed the worst accusation levelled at the Parliamentary Labour Party and the bureaucracy in HQ: that they would rather destroy their party than allow the left to succeed. But it also brought out the best in the movement that had formed around Jeremy Corbyn, mobilising hundreds of thousands of people to take politics into their own hands and cut the MPs down to size. The role played by the trade unions was critical. This was the moment when, without Unite, Corbyn would have gone under.

The result of the EU referendum was the pretext used by MPs for the putsch they had been threatening to launch since day one of Corbyn’s leadership. Of course, it made no sense. Labour had delivered two-thirds of its voters for Remain. As for the other third, anyone who thought the result would have been different had Jeremy told the Labour heartlands all was well with the EU was living in a dream world. It was easy to do that from an oligarch’s yacht or a bank boardroom but it wasn’t so convincing in our de-industrialised cities and towns.

Labour politicians had urgent work to do protecting employment rights and jobs from Conservatives who saw Brexit as a mandate to introduce a free-market dystopia at the expense of working people. Instead, they decided this was the moment to turn inwards, let the Tories off the hook, and busy themselves with overturning a landslide leadership election held just nine months earlier.

Margaret Hodge led the charge on the day after the referendum, proposing a vote of no confidence in the leader. What a hypocrite—here was an MP blaming Corbyn for the result and yet her own constituency ignored her advice and voted overwhelmingly to Leave, one of the few to do so in the Remain stronghold of London. When the PLP’s confidence vote was taken a few days later—in a secret ballot, because the MPs didn’t have the guts to answer for their actions to their local members—172 voted no confidence, 75 per cent of the parliamentary party. These were people you would never want alongside you on the battlefield.

From the outset, supporters of Corbyn, including me, were saying if MPs wanted to get rid of the leader they should put up a challenger and take him on democratically—the rules allowed it. But they wouldn’t do that because they knew he would win. That’s why they came up with novel, unconstitutional ways to force him to resign, like the vote of no confidence, the staged shadow cabinet resignations, and the old tactic of simply abusing him to his face at a disgraceful meeting of the PLP on 27 June when they attempted, in Diane Abbott’s words, to “break him as a man.” What despicable, spineless people they were.

However, they hadn’t reckoned on Corbyn’s inner strength, or on the strength of those who rallied around him. At the same time as that infamous PLP meeting was taking place, a spontaneous demonstration gathered in Parliament Square. Thousands turned out to give a message of defiance to the PLP. Corbyn went directly from being pilloried by MPs in Westminster’s Committee Room 14—told by no-marks he wasn’t “fit to be prime minister” and that resigning would be “the most important contribution you can make to the Labour Party”—to being cheered to the heavens by a large and emotional crowd outside. It can’t have done his morale any harm.

The party experienced the most spectacular membership surge ever seen in those days and weeks, with 130,000 new members joining in a fortnight. Online, more people signed a motion of confidence in Corbyn than had voted for him in the original leadership election.

That’s not to say these weren’t precarious times for LOTO. The pressure was enormous. Some of Corbyn’s allies among MPs buckled. People who should have known better advised him to go. Karie Murphy played a critical role by shielding Jeremy from personal lobbying by MPs. At one point Andy Burnham—who to his credit had initially refused to join the public resignations—coordinated a group of supportive MPs who intended to tell Jeremy privately they were going to stand down. Karie thwarted them by calling Jeremy, who was on his way into parliament, and telling him to turn around while she locked the door to the Leader’s Office and picked off the waverers one by one.

I was resolved to do whatever I could to shore up Corbyn’s position, including intervening on broadcast media and in print to warn the plotters that if their betrayal succeeded in ousting the leader without a democratic contest, they would split the party. But the most important thing I could do was to bring the other unions with me.

I pulled together a coalition of trade unions that went well beyond those that had supported Corbyn in the first leadership contest. Importantly, it included the GMB, which had sat it out in 2015, and Unison, which despite having endorsed Corbyn had a leadership who, I think it’s fair to say, were not his biggest fans. As it happened, it wasn’t difficult to persuade them—my pitch was that what was being done was a fucking outrage. No one could argue with that. There was a feeling that Jeremy and John deserved a chance. My task was to catch that common ground to get a unified position.

A statement signed by the general secretaries of 12 trade unions—Unite, Unison, GMB, CWU, UCATT, TSSA, ASLEF, FBU, Musicians’ Union, BECTU, the Bakers and the NUM—was issued on 24 June, before the shadow cabinet resignations began. It said: “The last thing Labour needs is a manufactured leadership row of its own in the midst of this crisis and we call upon all Labour MPs not to engage in any such indulgence.”

The PLP ignored our advice so on 29 June we put out another statement saying, “our members and millions of others will be looking with dismay at the events in parliament,” and telling MPs to, “respect the authority of the Party’s leader.” At the time, with the Labour establishment attempting to force Jeremy’s resignation or prevent him from standing in another contest, merely getting into a leadership election looked like it would be a victory, so the statement said Corbyn “should not be challenged except through the proper democratic procedures provided for in the Party’s constitution.”

Crucially, having a unified position meant I was able to speak for the trade unions in negotiations behind the scenes. I cleared that with all the other unions, including even the traditionally right-wing USDAW. I knew who I would be negotiating with—the man who had positioned himself as the PLP’s de facto leader in the crisis: Tom Watson.

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