Above: McCluskey talks to Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon
- The following is largely based upon a report by Jim Pickard in today’s Financial Times (6 February). We are unable to verify its accuracy but it tallies with what we have observed and been told by other reliable sources. It should be read in conjunction with Caroline Flint’s piece in today’s Guardian.
Four union leaders, including Len McCluskey of Unite, had one-on-one talks with the PM in Downing Street last month.
McCluskey is seeking commitments from May that would give some Labour MPs an excuse to back the government in the next “meaningful vote” on Brexit. That could allow Brexit to proceed without Jeremy Corbyn being held responsible by Labour’s anti-Brexit rank and file. “The unions are at war given Unite’s attempt at a side deal,” an unnamed “senor union figure” told the FT, adding “and people are suspicious that it’s being nodded through by the leader’s office.”
Last week Corbyn refused to sack eight front-bench MPs who defied the leadership whip by not backing a vote that would have delayed Brexit and blocked a no-deal departure. That prompted speculation that Corbyn’s office was determined to kill off the possibility of a second referendum.
The GMB, Community, TSSA and Royal College of Nursing are pushing for another referendum and polling has suggested majority support for a second referendum among members of Unite. Labour’s formal policy is to pursue a second referendum on a Brexit deal if it is unable to force a general election. But McCluskey has warned that a second referendum would be seen as a “betrayal” by Leave voters and possibly cause civil unrest. Interviewed by Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon on 25 January he said: “Coming out of the EU is not the end of the world.” An unnamed “Labour figure close to the leadership” told the FT that Corbyn — despite publicly opposing May’s deal — wanted it to go through without “his fingerprints on it”, leaving him free to focus on other issues such as public services: “People seem to think Len is operating his own parallel operation, but the idea that Len has gone rogue is nonsense,” the figure said. “He has permission to drive Labour MPs to a position of supporting the deal or at least abstain.”
Former Unite personnel in Team Corbyn include party general secretary Jennie Formby and adviser Andrew Murray. His chief of staff, Karie Murphy, is a close friend of McCluskey. “Len seems to be seeking deals behind closed doors to get Jeremy Corbyn off the hook, that’s the feeling,” said one “union chief” quoted by the FT.
The government has now offered to adopt existing workers’ rights from Europe into British law and create “dynamic alignment” between the two in future. Unions have proposed that future protections for workers’ rights should be written into the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
May has also floated the idea of a new fund that could benefit Leave areas, in an attempt to woo (some would say, “bribe”) Labour MP’s from those constituencies.
An un-named “Labour figure” told the FT that any plan to let some MPs back Mrs May’s deal in the coming weeks had to be “surreptitious” for it to work.
Owen Smith, the former Labour frontbencher and leadership challenger is quoted as saying “Len McCluskey won’t be forgiven if he splits from our other trade unions . . . to facilitate a sordid back room deal on Brexit”.
Paul Hilder, described by the FT as a “left wing campaigner” (a description Shiraz wouldn’t necessarily agree with) is quoted as saying “Len McCluskey is undermining Labour conference policy . . . Corbyn’s project is in jeopardy.”
Unite said it was working with sister unions to press the government to put the issues of working people before those of the Conservative party: “Our union fully supports Labour’s position on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of an extremely difficult situation … We are pressing on the government the importance of acting now to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which means stopping pandering to the hard right.”