Four union leaders, including Len McCluskey of Unite, had one-on-one talks with the Prime Minister in Downing Street late in January. According to usually well-informed sources like Robert Peston and the Financial Times, McCluskey played a key role.
McCluskey sought 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 overwhelmingly 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 Financial Times, adding “and people are suspicious that it’s being nodded through by the [Labour] Leader’s Office.”
McCluskey has never been particularly hostile to Brexit, given his close links to the pro-Brexit Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star and also the Socialist Party. Interviewed on Channel 4 (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.” McCluskey has also claimed that a second referendum would be seen as a “betrayal” by Leave voters and possibly cause civil unrest.
Given McCluskey’s key role in facilitating Corbyn’s capitulation to Brexit, it’s worth recalling Unite’s policy. The Unite policy conference in July 2018 received a large number of motions on Brexit, the vast majority of which were broadly hostile to Brexit. One (from North West/Automotive RISC) called for “continued participation in and access to the European Single Market”. Several called for a second referendum. One (from West Midlands/Automotive RISC) called upon the union to: “Campaign against any Brexit deal that would harm UK jobs and economy by the introduction of trade barriers. Campaign against any terms that would have a detrimental impact on UK workers’ rights. Campaign to ensure that the UK public has a binding vote to accept the terms of the UK exit from the EU or reject the terms of the UK exit from the EU and remain in the EU.
“In the absence of a public vote on the final Brexit terms, campaign to re-join the EU if the UK leaves the EU with trade barriers that have a detrimental impact on UK workers.
“Ensure the union remains fully committed to all EU trade union federations, alliances and organisations”.
There was just one motion (London & Eastern/1228 Waltham Forest Council Branch) calling for a “socialist Brexit”.
Inevitably, in the compositing process, the motions were combined, generalised. In the case of the West Midlands Automotive motion, the more outspoken anti-Brexit sentiments got omitted. This resulted in an executive statement that began by accepting the result of the 2016 referendum, but which did not rule out a second referendum (“popular vote”) on Brexit: “We are also open to the possibility of a popular vote being held on any deal, depending on political circumstances.”
That was not the main thrust of the statement (which is to force an early general election); but a new public vote was there in black and white as a “possibility”.
Anyone foolish enough to have depended upon the Morning Star for information on Unite’s policy emerging from the conference would have got the impression that (to quote the Star) “the union said no to a second referendum on Brexit”. That was a flat, straightforward lie.
Fast-forward to the Labour Party conference in September 2018. Over 150 constituency parties submitted motions on Brexit – by far the highest number of motions on one topic ever submitted into Labour’s “contemporary resolutions” process. The overwhelming majority were hostile to a “Tory Brexit”. Most called for a “people’s vote” or second referendum. The composite eventually passed says: “Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government. In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate general election that can sweep the Tories from power. If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
This text originally said the vote should be on the deal only, but crucially that line was deleted – specifically in order to leave open the option of a new referendum including an option to Remain. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer confirmed this in the debate on the motion and Corbyn subsequently agreed. But immediately after Starmer’s speech, up jumped Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner to attack Starmer for leaving open the option to remain. “And, conference, that [“public vote”] is not a second referendum. Despite what Keir might have said earlier, it’s a public vote on the terms of our departure. We need to heal the wounds of Brexit, not reopen them”.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that although what Turner said was in clear and obvious breach of Unite policy, he was only repeating what McCluskey had said the previous Sunday, to the joy of Brexiteers, on the Pienaar’s Politics show on BBC Radio 5 Live: “The referendum shouldn’t be on, ‘Do you want to go back in the European Union?’ The people have already decided on that. We very rarely have referendums in this country, the people have decided against my wishes and my union’s wishes, but they have decided”.
Corbyn has refused to sack eight front-bench MPs who defied the 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.
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. I’m usually fairly suspicious of anonymous quotes in the bourgeois press, but on this occasion it all rings true. McCluskey’s on manoeuvres to facilitate Brexit, in defiance both of Labour policy and of Unite’s.