Len McCluskey has had a pretty bad 10 days.
It started with Gerard Coyne making a pointed attack on McCluskey’s use of a very large amount of Unite members’ funds to get himself set up living rent and mortgage free in the very centre of one of the world’s most expensive cities.
It wasn’t just that the sum lent to buy the property – £417,300 – was huge and well beyond what any average Unite member could expect to borrow never mind get for free, it was also the lousy service he was done by the union in defending this perk.
Instead of simply stating the truth – that the top officials of Unite have come to expect rich property pickings as of right – the union tried all sorts of fanciful ways to justify it: including that it was to help Len move to London (something he did a quarter of a century ago) and that this represented an investment by the union.
Now, it is, I am sure, true that if the property rises in value Unite will get a share of the increased value back. But that of itself hardly constitutes a good use of union money. Leaving aside whether an organisation that seeks to serve the interests of working people should be speculating in property to begin with – because the “Marxists” supposedly running Unite have apparently decided that it is in the interests of the working class to drive up property prices rather than build more homes – then any decent property investor would know that rent should be being paid. And plainly none is – because there is only one owner of the property – Len McCluskey.
But the property story, bad though it was, was only the entree. Much worse was to come with the loss of what had once been a safe Labour seat in Copeland to the Tories last Thursday.
That loss was, in many people’s view, directly attributable to the long-held and widely-expressed antipathy of Jeremy Corbyn to nuclear power. Attempts by Emily Thornberry to label reports of Corbyn’s hostility to nuclear as “fake news” only serve to show the desperate state the Labour Party now finds itself in.
And that is where Len comes in – because Len McCluskey is, without doubt, the most important non-parliamentary supporter of Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn’s election and re-election campaign were essentially funded by Unite: in fact the re-election campaign of last summer was run out of Unite’s offices.
All of this despite Corbyn’s hostility not just to civil nuclear, but also to Trident renewal and Heathrow expansion – all things strongly supported by Unite’s membership and on which many thousands of Unite members depend upon for their current and future employment.
Up to now, McCluskey has loved all of this and the opportunities it has given him to look like a big figure in public life. It is this political game playing, rather than having political opinions, which has irked so many of his opponents, but that has not bothered him so long as he was ahead in the game.
But even Len knows which way the wind is blowing amongst working class voters. He knows that a public endorsement of Corbyn would now be electoral poison for him in Unite – especially as the issue of his lavish member-funded lifestyle and big donations to Corbyn are starting to be linked.
So his team are claiming he’s too busy to speak about Corbyn and whining and whinging about the fact that Gerard Coyne is. Having once quite literally encouraged journalists to portray him as the king-maker in Labour, McCluskey now protests that it is his opponents who talk about Labour while he gets on with what they call the “day job”: was he on holiday when he posed with his chess set before? I doubt it.
There is no sign that Len has actually ditched his support for Corbyn. The fact that such rumours are swirling around only indicates a few of his more savvy supporters knows it suits him to have a bit of ambiguity out there with the chattering classes.
In fact Len probably cannot afford to dump Corbyn any more than he can be seen to back him. McCluskey’s campaign is dependent on support from a layer of activists who are still very likely to be fully signed up to the Corbyn project. If they think Len is going to stab Corbyn in the back they may well walk away, leaving the incumbent general secretary totally reliant what he can twist out of the Unite machine to get himself re-elected.
But can he really get through another month of not answering questions about Corbyn? He looks like he is going to try.
In fact Len’s team will probably now try their very hardest to shut the election down. He’ll refuse to do any broadcast interviews (his press officer already appears to live in Spain, so it’s not hard to ‘go dark’) and try to get by by whipping up industrial stories and saying he is too focussed on them to even contemplate answering anything else.
The fact that Unite members might reasonably expect their general secretary to be able to deal with more than one issue at once – especially when all the money he is getting is considered – is something McCluskey hopes will never get raised.