Always Red by Len McCluskey review – bluster of a righteous brother

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Len McCluskey is a chess enthusiast. During his 11-year tenure as the general secretary of the 1.4 million-member “super union” Unite, he kept several sets of pieces in his office, and once sat for a portrait behind a chessboard, camply holding up a king in the manner of a Bond villain. The pose reflected not just his status as a big player in the Labour party, but something too often missed: the delicate negotiations with employers that he reckons took up 90% of his working time, and his reputation as a very capable deal-maker.

Most company CEOs, he writes in this 300-page memoir, are “charming and professional”. In a fascinating section left until the book’s final pages, he explains some of the nitty-gritty of representing a huge range of workers, and tactics he terms “leverage” (“working out where an employer is weak and applying pressure using unconventional methods”). In doing so, he shines light on why and how he rose from early union activism on Liverpool’s docks in the late 1960s – and, indeed, why some of the invective hurled at him has always symbolised how a huge chunk of the British establishment simply loathes trade unions, not least when they deliver for their members.

Smattered through Always Red is a good story about the way that trade unionism can drastically change people’s lives

Unfortunately, the majority of this book is not really about that stuff. Instead, McCluskey concentrates on Labour’s machinations over 40 or so years and his part therein. The nuanced vocabulary of a negotiator tends to be absent: his adversaries and detractors are routinely described as “despicable”, “spineless” and “unforgivable”. By contrast, in his somewhat romantic accounts of watershed moments in Labour’s post-1970s story (the miners’ strike of 1984-85; the so-called Militant Tendency’s torrid spell in charge of his native Liverpool), he strenuously avoids any meaningful questioning of the left’s role in its serial defeats, and tends to present the principal characters as shining knights. Candour and introspection, you get the feeling, are equated with weakness and thereby best avoided.

And yet. Smattered through Always Red is a good story about the way that trade unionism can drastically change people’s lives. McCluskey was brought up in the Kirkdale area of Liverpool in a house with an outside toilet, by a mother and father who had lost a child to tuberculosis. He slept in his parents’ bedroom until he was 10, and left education at 18 to work on Liverpool’s docks as a planman, drawing up all-important diagrams of ships and their cargo. The book’s best section evokes the dazzling world in which he found himself, and the constant sense that without the unions’ collective vigilance, many of the pillars of working-class life would come crashing down – something that began in earnest with the arrival in power of Margaret Thatcher.

With Jeremy Corbyn on a steelworkers march in 2016: &#x002018;McCluskey&#x002019;s enthusiasm [for Corbyn] arguably got the better of him&#x002019;
With Jeremy Corbyn on a steelworkers march in 2016: ‘McCluskey’s enthusiasm [for Corbyn] arguably got the better of him.’ Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Thirty-five years later, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest offered his older supporters what they saw as a chance to finally try to avenge such ghosts – and, in contrast to his wily ways as a negotiator, McCluskey’s enthusiasm arguably got the better of him. Here, the chapter about Labour’s antisemitism crisis manages to be both dull and, in its omissions and evasions, rather offensive. His belief that the party’s thumping defeat in 2019 was almost wholly reducible to Brexit entails averting his eyes from a deep working-class antipathy towards Corbyn, and the even bigger story of how leftwing, trade union-centred politics had so estranged its supposed core support over decades.

There are insights tangled up in the bluster. Though the details in review copies have been blocked out until publication day, McCluskey was involved in secret talks with senior Conservatives he believes could have led to a Tory-Labour accord on Brexit, thereby setting recent history on a very different course. There are more comprehensive redactions of material describing McCluskey’s conversations with Keir Starmer about Corbyn’s suspension from the party after his response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on Labour antisemitism – and a “deal for Jeremy’s reinstatement” – which make it impossible to judge (“I am so confident of the account I have given here that I have submitted it for use in legal proceedings,” McCluskey insists). He also feels that when he and his allies were led to believe that Starmer would be a keeper of the leftwing flame, the latter was guilty of conscious deceit – and here, McCluskey clearly has a case.

Again, though, his intended sense of righteousness fails to take flight. One big story goes unmentioned here: the 2019 libel case against Unite and a Corbyn-supporting blogger, brought by the former Labour MP Anna Turley and estimated to have set back the two defendants around £1.3m in costs, as well as damages of £75,000. Here, it seemed, was proof of McCluskey’s reckless and expensive dalliances on what were once the fringes of Labour politics, and a reminder that someone who played the role of a kingmaker and power-broker did not have the firmest of foundations to stand on.

When he last stood for general secretary, the turnout had been 12.2%. McCluskey’s successor, Sharon Graham, was recently elected on a similarly lowly turnout, and has vowed that Unite will step away from Labour’s internal battles and “get back to the workplace and deliver what it says on the trade union tin”. Viewed through that prism, in political terms, Always Red feels less like the story of a long and ultimately triumphant series of clashes than something much more anticlimactic: defeat after a run of rash moves, with the chess pieces quietly put away and no great desire to replay the game.

Always Red by Len McCluskey is published by OR Books (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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