he race for a new Labour leader is well underway. Not Keir Starmer. Not yet anyway. It’s the battle to succeed Len McCluskey, who runs Unite — one of Britain’s biggest and most powerful trade unions — and who has spent most of his career trying to run Labour. Mainly into the ground. Who takes over from McCluskey will have profound political consequences for a beleaguered Labour Party and Starmer himself who yesterday saw his ratings plummet to the same low level as Jeremy Corbyn at the same stage as his leadership, as revealed yesterday in an exclusive poll for the Standard. The Ipsos MORI research also showed that Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is now more popular with the public and Labour supporters than both Starmer and London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan.
There are four candidates in the race for Unite boss: three from the Left and one more experienced mainstream contender, Gerard Coyne, who, despite attempts to keep him off the final ballot paper, secured enough nominations. Coyne ran McCluskey a close second in the previous race and Team Starmer will be hoping he wins and praying that Howard Beckett, seen as McCluskey’s heir, doesn’t. Labour and the unions have always had a link since the party was founded by Keir Hardie (Starmer’s namesake) to represent the workers, but relations have become highly strained — particularly with McCluskey.
He made it his mission to make life hell for Labour leaders and MPs he didn’t agree with. A close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, his time as Unite boss will be remembered for going to war with more moderate Labour MPs, including Tom Watson and Margaret Hodge, threatening deselection and to defund the Labour Party coffers. The union also recently lost an expensive legal case against ex-Labour MP Anna Turley for smearing her name. And there are questions about a £98 million new hotel and regional HQ in Birmingham when so many Unite members are struggling with low pay and precarious work.
This war-mongering against mainstream Labour MPs has been fatal to the party’s recent fortunes, but maybe more tragically it has given unions a bad name at a time when people have never needed “a strong friend at work” more. Membership has plummeted in recent years with many put off by the optic of the aggressive, fat cat union boss which McCluskey symbolised.
The great irony is that trade unions have been quietly changing behind the scenes with a new generation of leadership doing ground-breaking work. Frances O’Grady of the TUC worked closely with the Treasury on crafting the furlough and jobs protection scheme. The GMB forced Uber to recognise its drivers as workers and allow trade union membership, a move which is a huge step forward for the gig economy. But there are many more workplace travesties which need addressing, such as the policy of firing and rehiring staff on worse conditions or the discrimination faced by pregnant women.
We need intelligent, tough union leaders who are principled and pragmatic negotiators prepared to work with business leaders and ministers to get better jobs, pay and conditions. We don’t need loud mouths obsessed with a factional fight to the death within the Labour Party, which terrifies voters who then run to the Tories.
The era of McCluskey’s style and iron fist dominance over union and Labour politics has to go if the party and Starmer have any chance of making a recovery. If it doesn’t, then the big winner of the leadership contest will be Boris Johnson.